There have been plenty reviews of the band’s albums and concerts over the past three decades in The Washington Post. While digging them up, something surprised us — it wasn’t always overwhelmingly positive. And we’re not just talking about the second half of the band’s career, when everyone accepted that their best days were in the past.
Here you’ll find The Post’s earliest concert and album reviews (from 1983 and 1984, respectively) as well as a handful of other reviews from 1992 and earlier.
Live review: R.E.M. at 9:30 Club
By Howard Wuelfing, March 14, 1983
This year's underground Wunderkinder, Athens, Georgia's R.E.M. of Athens, Ga., hit the 9:30 club's stage late Saturday night already worked up to fever pitch. Lead singer Michael Stipe lurched toward the mike, collared it and began belting out surreal, muddled lyrics in classic southern pop style — hoarse yet tuneful, more concerned with passion than with precision.
Other band members capered about good-naturedly, feigning near collisions time and again while grinding out measure after measure of murky, monochromatic post-pop. The band pulled off a real coup with "Sitting Still," the flip side of their R.E.M.'s debut 45. While confounding every etiquette imaginable rule of pop song craft imaginable, the group nonetheless enchanted a packed house of power pop devotees. The song ran on for far too long, it lacked strong riffs, and the lyrics were well nigh unintelligible. But the crowd was won over by Stipe's powerful vocalise and the token Beatle-isms the rest of the group repeatedly fell back on.
Album review: R.E.M., “Reckoning”
By Joe Sassy, May 10, 1984
When the annual critics polls were tallied for 1983, lots of people were surprised to find R.E.M.'s debut album, "Murmur," topping records by vastly more popular and equally creative acts like the Police, U2, Talking Heads and David Bowie. "Murmur" won the Rolling Stone Poll for best album and ran a close second in The Village Voice to the most successful album in pop history, Michael Jackson's "Thriller." There was no doubt that R.E.M.'s evocative instrumental fabric and atmospheric moodiness had captured the critics' imaginations and those of the more adventurous portions of the rock audience.
Much of what was written about this quartet from Athens, Ga., focused on the organic impenetrability of its sound and, even more, on lead singer Michael Stipe's knack for rendering his lyrics indecipherable. Of course, Stipe occasionally dangled an intelligible phrase, which could be taken either as a provocative clue to the band's collective unconscious or as a meaningless snippet for the critics to mull over.
Some even concluded that R.E.M.'s music was an aurally rich but empty intrigue--a murky pool of jangly guitars, Stipe's mumbling and surging rhythms that succeeded precisely because you could dive into them again and again and always come up empty-handed. It was suggested that the band's appeal was built on not conveying anything but sound itself, albeit an extremely attractive, rippling synthesis of post-'60s guitar pop.
R.E.M.'s second album, "Reckoning"(IRS SP 70044), proves that both Stipe's lyrical obfuscation and the band's textural haze, both of which are cleaned up here, are irrelevant to this band's wondrous music or its meaning. Producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon are back again, but this time they have cut back the undergrowth of overdubs and let some light in. The music rings clearer, Stipe's vocals are at least as intelligible as Mick Jagger's (i.e., the choruses can all be understood), and the band's 10 originals trump even "Murmur's" outstanding songwriting.
Best of all, "Reckoning"retains the band's wholly original sound and the emotionally disquieting feel of all of its previous work. Song after song conjures a mood of cultural estrangement and weariness that can become surprisingly uplifting, as the music climbs out of the solemnity of the verses into a gorgeous, hook-laden chorus.
If Stipe is still largely unconcerned with his words, it's probably because he has fashioned a more emotionally fluent language from the sound of his voice. A little burry and slightly nasal, Stipe's singing conveys a feeling of both lassitude and perceptiveness, not unlike that of early Bob Dylan. The missed connections of "Letter Never Sent" are conveyed by Stipe in painful, syllable-stretching moans and groans, while the ominous desolation of "So. Central Rain" is underscored in a despairing crescendo of cries. The stirring choruses of "Pretty Persuasion" and "Harborcoat" become almost spooky as voices float to the surface like specters.
What can be made from the few words and richly emotional sound R.E.M. offers is a sense of personal unease and cultural dislocation that can find neither answers nor a place to rest. The romantic remembrances of "Letter Never Sent" and "Camera" are consumed by a tragic air of estrangement and loneliness. In "So. Central Rain," Stipe cheerlessly mumbles, "the cities wash away," before crying out the chorus, "Sorry . . . sorry." In this sense, R.E.M. is a wholly American rock 'n' roll band, not unlike X or Green on Red or even T-Bone Burnett, all acts that convey a sense of America lost, unmoored from its past and with no vision of its future.
If much of what Stipes conveys is disconsolate, even depressing, R.E.M. remains a resplendent rock 'n' roll band, one that basks in the shimmering textures of Peter Buck's guitar and its irresistible minor-key melodies. In "Time After Time," Buck's droning guitar figure casts an exotic psychedelic aura, while "7 Chinese Bros." takes on a childishly innocent air thanks to Buck's delicate and ornate guitar work. The rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry swells and subsides in such faultless sympathy with each song's emotional structure that the band sound is rendered indivisible.
The musical triumph of "Reckoning"comes to a grand, if unsettling, conclusion on the album's last two numbers. The band indulges in a few seconds of inept funk (perhaps a satiric comment on rock bands who insist on copping fashionable black rhythms) before breaking into a rolling country-western tune, "Don't Go Back to Rockville." Stipe pleads for a woman's return, before knowingly confessing, "If you were here I'd only bleed you." Then comes "Little America," a rousing, propulsive rocker about life on the road that finds Stipe matter-of-factly stating to the band's manager, "Jefferson, I think we're lost." Lost or not, there isn't an American rock band more worth following than R.E.M.
(After the jump: “If the Doors are ‘the most overrated group in rock history’ (as critic Dave Marsh put it), then R.E.M. is heir to its legacy.”)
Album review: R.E.M., “Fables of the Reconstruction”
By Joe Sassy, June 13, 1985
There is an ominous, reverberating guitar figure opening the first side of the new R.E.M. album "Fables of the Reconstruction" (IRS-5592) that, like the creepy theme to "Perry Mason," is a bone-chilling introduction to mystery. Even granting lead singer Michael Stipe his characteristic burry unintelligibility, the third album from this much-heralded Georgia quartet asserts its musical magic on terms darker and more elusive than ever.
Eschewing radio-tailored accessibility and immediacy, "Fables of the Reconstruction" unfolds a dense and colorful rock tapestry, every bit as involving as a riddle with no solution. Traveling to England to work with producer Joe Boyd represents a significant change in R.E.M.'s typical southern recording strategy. Boyd, known for his work with Celtic rocker Richard Thompson, has deepened the band's sound, moving it from its cheerier folk-rock heritage toward the more foreboding temper of Celtic culture and mythology.
The few explicit production touches Boyd does provide — the violins ending "Feeling Gravity's Pull," the fat soul horns that fade out "Can't Get There From Here" and the plucky banjo coursing through "Wendell Gee" — work like musical echoes of something buried in the past. Stipe's voice, too — crying, moaning, humming and floating through the band's overgrown thicket of guitar, bass and drums — sounds like a weary soul in search of something missing.
As always, Stipe's lyrics are mostly indecipherable, but what surfaces carries the provocative and allusive character of dream fragments. In "Feeling Gravity's Pull," Stipe moans, "Gravity's pulling me around," and later, "Oceans fall, mountains drift." Throughout "Fables," the music moves as if pulled by unconscious forces beyond the band's control. If the album title can be read explicitly, then these songs are the emotional fallout from an old South struggling for a place in a new America.
This theme is overt in the album's last song, a sad eulogy to one of those folksy characters, "Wendell Gee," who used to signify America at its most independent and eccentric. The album's catchiest rocker, "Can't Get There From Here," is even more painfully evocative. Set on a kinetic funk guitar riff, the song establishes a distraught dialogue, Stipe crying "Can't get there from here" while the band teasingly answers, "I've been there, I know the way."
Live review: R.E.M. at Capital Centre
By Kathi Whalen, April 20, 1989
"Hello (your city here)," flashed the screen flanking R.E.M. Tuesday night. The line was obviously a tongue-in-cheek reference to the cliche's that stadium acts are so fond of throwing out.
But the band couldn't afford to be too flip: This Capital Centre show had put R.E.M.'s unassuming folkish pop in the same ranks.
At the outset, "Pop Song 89," a layered jangle of guitar, sounded paper-thin, and the only band member who seemed vaguely interested in moving was singer Michael Stipe,whose jerky movements overcompensated.
The trippy swirl of "Turn You Inside Out" shouldn't have made it the song that shifted the mood, but, backed by colorful home movies of aquariums and lakes, the band's delivery here was bold and fleshed out. The gradual elegance of Stipe's singular, nasal voice and offhanded choreography guided the tone thereafter.
Most arrangements stayed close to their originals. One departure, a semiacoustic "End of the World as We Know It," was always trying to catch up with itself, though Conga's and Peter Buck's lap guitar during "King of Birds" lent the song quiet exoticism. R.E.M.'s original home, the underground club scene, received plenty of nods: The dBs' Peter Holsapple filled in on keyboards and second guitar, and as a last salute, the band raced through a cover of Pylon's "Crazy" with reverent zeal.
Album review: R.E.M., “Out of Time”
By Geoffrey Himes, March 17, 1991
The new Oliver Stone film, "The Doors," is the story of a rock-and-roll band that parlayed dark, atmospheric mood music and overblown, pretentious lyrics into a cult following all out of proportion to its talent. Stone does his best to canonize the group, but the soundtrack inevitably exposes the groovelessness and bad poetry of the songs. If Stone ever decides to shoot a sequel, he might well call it "R.E.M."
If the Doors are "the most overrated group in rock history" (as critic Dave Marsh put it), then R.E.M. is heir to its legacy. The new R.E.M. album, "Out of Time" (Warner Bros.), is the equivalent of the Doors' "Soft Parade," an overproduced attempt to go pop with strings and horns that only bares the band's deficiencies. By all accounts, the offstage Michael Stipe has nothing in common with the offstage Jim Morrison — who the film reveals as a drunken egomaniac — but as a songwriter and lead singer, he resembles Morrison in more ways than one.
You can hear it in the way both sing with a humorless somberness, as if they had just descended from Mount Sinai with stone tablets under each arm. You can hear it in the way their lyrics seem to plunder the diary jottings of a 19-year-old English/philosophy major who has just read Thomas Wolfe and Friedrich Nietzsche for the first time. Morrison exploited the hormonal surges of the 19-year-old persona to proclaim himself the "Lizard King." Stipe, by contrast, exploits the mystic vagueness of 19-year-olds -- call him the "Wizard King." "Oh, life is bigger," he intones. "It's bigger than you, and you are not me." Profound.
Just as the Doors' best moments were created by Ray Manzarek's catchy pop organ riffs, so do R.E.M.'s best moments come from Peter Buck's hook-laden guitar. Buck's bright, chirping figures make "Near Wild Heaven," "Half a World Away" and "Shiny Happy People" irresistible bits of neo-psychedelia. The album's guest stars include rapper KRS-1 of Boogie Down Productions (who shouts around the edges of the anti-radio "Radio Song"), New Orleans jazz legend Kidd Jordan (whose saxophone gets buried in the mix), string arranger Mark Bingham (who fleshes out the textures without intruding) and singer Kate Pierson of the B-52s (who lends some much-needed lightening). Like the Doors, R.E.M. comes up with a handful of contagious pop tunes on each album, and could benefit from a compilation that isolates those tracks.
Album review: R.E.M., “Automatic for the People”
By Mark Jenkins, Oct. 7, 1992
It can certainly be argued that R.E.M. is not a great rock-and-roll band — its work is just too vague, for one thing -- but the quartet shares one attribute with greater bands. Like sui generis groups from the Beatles to the Smiths, R.E.M. absorbs far-flung styles without risking its own identity. Last year's "Out of Time," for example, played up mandolin and acoustic guitar and enlisted such outsiders as KRS-One and B-52 Kate Pierson; yet the "experimental" album was not only indisputably R.E.M., it was also the band's most commercially successful release.
The new "Automatic for the People" (Warner Bros.) emphasizes a string section — whose parts were arranged and conducted by ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones — yet its spare, folky sound is fundamentally an extension of its predecessor's. "Hey, kids/ rock-and-roll," sings singer-lyricist Michael Stipe on the opening "Drive," but the only rock-and-roll elements in that ballad -- or most of the other songs — are the shards of dissonant noise that producer Scott Litt has mixed deep into the background. (The album of up-tempo, electric-guitar rockers that the band promised would follow "Out of Time" is now promised as the next one.)
Titled after the slogan of Weaver D.'s Delicious Fine Foods, a soul-food restaurant in the band's hometown of Athens, Ga., "Automatic" was recorded on a marathon trek from studio to studio, from Athens to New Orleans to Woodstock to Miami to Atlanta to Seattle, where the album was mixed. This is old-school rock-star excess, of course, and a formula for a disjointed mess. Yet only one of the album's 12 tracks is marginal: "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1," a meandering, low-impact composition that bears the mark of Eno collaborator Daniel Lanois, in whose New Orleans studio it was recorded.
Stipe's words and voice are as prominent as they have been on the last several albums, but that doesn't make them lucid. "Everybody Hurts," an almost-country lament, has a message as straightforward and coherent as its title, but the more exuberant songs are as cryptic as ever. (That many of their meanings are hopelessly private seems likely; in a video press kit that accompanies the album, guitarist Peter Buck explains that the title of "Try Not to Breathe" comes from his comment when told the microphone he was using was exceptionally sensitive.) Some of the songs seem to express vague melancholy and regret, but that's nothing new for R.E.M.
The album's languor is punctuated by three lively songs. Inexplicable as they are exuberant, "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" (which names Dr. Seuss and the Cat in the Hat and bears a distant resemblance to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), "Ignoreland" (which allegedly contains a political viewpoint) and "Man on the Moon" (Andy Kaufman, Charles Darwin and Elvis, among others) are as tuneful and buoyant as the best of the quartet's back catalogue. It's not just energy that distinguishes a song such as "Ignoreland," which has an early-'70s bubble gum-psychedelic spunk that recalls the band's cover of the Clique's "Superman" and whose listlike lyrics resemble those of "It's the End of the World (And I Feel Fine)." These tracks also inject some needed good humor into the proceedings: Stipe slips into a fleeting Elvis impersonation on "Moon," and "Sidewinder" contains a half-suppressed Stipe giggle.
More typical of the album are recessive ballads such as "Sweetness Follows," "Nightswimming" and "Find the River," whose sing-songy, old-English melody suggests R.E.M. pals 10,000 Maniacs. Bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry bring a funky propulsion to the few up-tempo numbers, but many of these songs are set just to mandolin and dulcimer (played by Buck), keyboards (Mills and Litt) and strings. The overall effect is subdued, but with repeated listening "Automatic" reveals considerable charms. The band members are predicting that its eccentricities will discourage massive sales, but then that's what they said about "Out of Time" too.