I'd be lying if I said I didn't see it coming. Just a few days ago, I found myself wondering when this day would arrive. After all, music's law of diminishing returns has been punishing the band's album sales for the better part of two decades now. Then today, it finally happened: The three remaining members of R.E.M. announced on their website that they are breaking up.
First, the Smiths (my all-time favorite band, silent since 1987, the year after I discovered R.E.M.), and now, this -- the demise of my all-time favorite U.S. band. No other act defines the last 25 years of my life the way R.E.M. does. "Superman" made me feel strong enough to get through those terrible teens. "Drive" drove me into adulthood, sanity in tact. I listened to "Leaving New York" on repeat in 2006 as that American Airlines flight took me from NYC to my new home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. And "Every Day Is Yours to Win" became my personal mantra as I tried to settle into yet another new life in Melbourne earlier this year.
For years, R.E.M. was the closest thing U2 had to a U.S. rival -- a band that could move fans to tears and/or action with both the hauntingly personal and the bracingly political. As with all rock & roll bands who outlive the normal five-year lifespan of multi-platinum superstardom (damn that law of diminishing returns!), fans came and went during what could be defined as the four distinct phases of R.E.M.'s 31-year career: indie heroes (Murmur to the transitional major-label debut, Green), multi-platinum gods (Out of Time to Monster), middle age (New Adventures in Hi-Fi to Reveal) and twilight (Around the Sun to Collapse into Now).
Fortunately, R.E.M. leaves behind many hours of listening pleasure. Unlike all of those post-Automatic for the People detractors (that 1992 album is widely and rightfully considered to be R.E.M.'s artistic zenith, and "Drive" deserved to follow "Losing My Religion" into the Top 5), I don't think the band fell apart creatively after the departure of drummer Bill Berry following the Monster tour at the '90s halfway mark. (The New York City stop at Madison Square Garden still stands as one of my favorite concert experiences ever.)
New Adventures in Hi-Fi (the last album to feature Berry as a full-time member), Up, Reveal, Accelerate, Collapse into Now and even the much-maligned Around the Sun all had moments of great beauty. ("So Fast So Numb" from New Adventures still gets me every time.) Critics hailed Collapse into Now as a near-return to form earlier this year, and it was. But despite its moments of musical genius, it was hard to tune out the sound of the clock ticking in the background of every song. (Incidentally, the production on "Every Day Is Yours to Win" echoed a tick-tock clock, and the lyrics quoted one, too.) When Collapse into Now ran its chart course in a matter of weeks -- tick tock tick tock -- it became all too clear that R.E.M. was almost out of time, to quote the title of its 1990 best-selling album.
I won't even try to countdown R.E.M.'s 15 studio albums from best to worst (or vice-versa), or list my 10, 20 or 25 favorite R.E.M. songs. Since I bought my first R.E.M. album, Life's Rich Pageant, in 1986, that list has changed on a weekly basis, with the aforementioned tracks as well as "Gardening at Night," "Catapult," "Begin the Begin," "Can't Get Here from There," "Monty Got a Raw Deal," "Ignoreland" and "Why Not Smile" being among the regulars on it.
But my favorite R.E.M. song has remained unchanged since the first time I heard it on Election Day of 1988: "Turn You Inside-Out," from Green, the album that R.E.M. and Warner Bros. released on November 7, 1988, my half-birthday, and the day the U.S. put the first of two George Bushes in the White House. For 25 years, that's exactly what R.E.M. did to me, turned me inside-out. Though the band is no more, I don't expect R.E.M.'s music to stop now.