Saturday, May 24, 2014

R.E.M. Unplugged

I've been a fan of R.E.M. at least since my Freshman year of college.  Back in my most active period of  album purchasing, I got into the band through Automatic for the People and Out of Time.  I thought they were beautiful records (even if Out of Time is occasionally silly as hell), but lacked the determination to make a full exploration of their catalog.  So those two albums stood alone in my collection, played and enjoyed, but not immoderately so.

Somehow, it wasn't until this year that I became a Fan.  That's a capital F right there, indicating the kind of enthusiast that puts time and energy toward analyzing the history and the psychology behind every track, living in the stories of every album and the musicians who made them.  You can communicate a lot with a capital F.

It wasn't a sudden discovery of the rest of their albums; through the magic of the internet, I'd heard many of them before.  But something really clicked this year.  I was feeling emotionally vulnerable: like so many times before in my life, I sought comfort in old music.   Perhaps it was pure chance, but R.E.M.'s first five albums came through for me in a huge way.  They hit me right in the feelings, and like a baby chick I imprinted on their mumbly jangling with a fierceness.  Now my girlfriend gives me the side eye whenever she hears "Don't Go Back to Rockville", but I'm a happy man with what might be a new favorite band.

And what are the odds, amidst this peculiar eruption of love, that R.E.M. would put out a new live album this year?  Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions  came along a few days ago and gave me another perfect excuse to do exactly what I've been itching to do: gush at length about my new obsession.  

Admittedly, the sound that fired my imagination so hotly was not the acoustic style on display here.  I was more than familiar with R.E.M. in this mode, but it's the electricity of Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant that has had me raving in recent days.  At their best, R.E.M. in those years put dynamism alongside mystery in a way that no other band could touch.  They were fast and beautiful and endlessly interpretable.  Best of all, they hit all my musical sweet spots: juicy backing vocals, melodic bass lines, shiny guitar sounds, the works.  The diversity of their sound was always a part of the appeal, but I was certifiably taken with the rock n' roll.

Now, Unplugged has brought me back to the soft embrace of Peter Buck's mandolin.  Put in the context of R.E.M.'s history, this long-delayed live album (or pair of them, if that's how you want to look at things) reveals their real greatness: not a particular set of conventions or instruments, but the overwhelming force of their personalities.  Separated by a decade, both shows are steeped in humanity.  Even when they change the arrangements, R.E.M. never stop sounding honest.

A contemporary of Out of Time, the 1991 concert has its share of goofiness.  They don't come out and play "Shiny Happy People" (thank God), but a few tracks come across as shallow gimmicks without the amplifiers.  "Radio Song" was gimmicky already, but playing it acoustic and sans-rap doesn't do it any real favors (go figure).  Michael Stipe's fake country accent, on the other hand, gives "The End of the World As We Know It" just the right kind of fun to compensate for the lack of watts.  Alongside sublime versions of "Fall On Me" and other songs that fit more comfortably and seriously in an acoustic set, the net effect is fun and warm and impossibly beautiful.

What of the second concert?  Minus Bill Berry and further removed from the band's dashing indie days, I confess I wasn't quite as eager to hear it.  It's too easy to valorize the youth of a band, especially when they visibly slow down in their old age.  Fewer of the 2001 songs sound like experiments (silly or otherwise), because by that time the whole "unplugged" aesthetic had become somewhat closer to R.E.M.'s default sound.  The band was already maturing in 91; they didn't get any younger.  But listening to the songs themselves, I found myself caring less and less.  Rock n' roll may be a special kind of thrill, but you can't really argue with beauty.

Stipe sounds a little more grizzled and old, but it doesn't really change his style that much.  Neither does the band neglect its old material, which is perhaps why Unplugged treats us to two versions of "Losing My Religion".  Concert number two is a much more straightforward affair, more what you might expect from rock stars with acoustic guitars and a mood for contemplation.  It's good that it's so pretty, or that might be the end of the conversation.  R.E.M.'s songs really are that moving, though.  I could listen to "Imitation of Life" for days, and if I get the chance I intend to.

I won't call this album essential, but I will call it a gift from one of the most remarkable bands of their time.  A band that ages as gracefully as this is one for the history books: the sort of thing to pay attention to.  Maybe it's just because I'm getting older, or maybe I've always been too old inside for my own good, but I appreciate that artistry.

Check this one out, reflect on your mortality, and thank someone for all the beauty in this world.  

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