On another level, it was welcomed news. I fell in love with R.E.M. back in the early 80's. Murmur, Reckoning, Fables, Life's Rich Pageant, Document. That R.E.M. was the R.E.M. That was the R.E.M. that changed the music landscape, changed the music business and changed the world. They defined college rock, put it on the map and opened the door for all the rest. But they had become old men, like any other. Rich 50 year olds aren't lost, poor, confused, angry 20 year olds. As far as I was concerned, THAT entity died almost 20 years ago. The last 20 years has just been stirring cold ashes.
It's quite cruel and probably not entirely fair to dismiss the latter 75% of their career and output, but I want to. To preserve in my heart the infallibility of those early albums I can't put them together with all the rest. As fans, we are all critics of the art we love and hate, and it's part of the relationship. Had they quit in 1992 at the top of world, that would have been the best. Art does not exist in a vacuum without it's audience.
R.E.M's early career and music so coincided with my own personal growth and self discovery; the magic and wonder of the 80's, the whole concept of an alternative pathway and life style and ethos. Those first five albums are jewels of treasure, so perfect, so original, innocent and honest. So breathtakingly beautiful and penetrating, deep with integrity and soulfulness. A Perfect Circle, from Murmur. Or maybe Shaken Through. That's it right there.
The latter R.E.M. wasn't the same. From Green onward, my interest in their new material quickly faded. They had simply evolved into something else. I didn't like Michael's new clearer singing style, or the more overt politics. And the more poppish sound. For many of of us purists, it wasn't our R.E.M. I found their most popular albums to be my least favorites. If frat boys were singing alone, could it be as good? It wasn't.
This type of thing happens with most bands, it's not really their fault. It just happens. That original energy, so raw, uncompromised and new, eventually has to fade. And the currents of pop culture quickly change, sometimes overnight. If you look at just about any band that's managed to survive and put out more than a half dozen albums, or survive in the public eye for more than a few years, it's simply the passage of time and experience. You can only uncork that bottle once, and time and space move forward unceasingly. There's no going back.
Age plays a huge role in that early creative, expressive magic, it's undeniable. So much of that magic is tied into youth, post adolescence, and all that. We all felt that at one point. Only a few of us channeled that into expressive art, the rest of us spent it elsewhere. But once that life stage passes, it's over. I'm not 20 or 25 years old anymore, as much as I might like to be or try to act. And it's not 1983, and won't be ever again.
When you think of the Rolling Stones, does anything they produced in the 80's or 90's have any cultural significance or value vs. what they achieved in the 60's and some of the 70's? You could love the Stones with all your heart and have no interest in anything they did post Exile On Main Street. That would mean you'd have dismissed (and rightly so) 80% of their career (but virtually NOTHING of their value). Van Halen. The Ramones. Springsteen. Or a host of other bands.
R.E.M. wasn't a band, or a group, they were far more than that. They were a moment in time, a full page of history, a piece living culture.
Maybe their last couple of albums are really good, but I might never listen to them. And I don't know if I could ever connect with them like I did with the old R.E.M.
R.E.M. will always live on, even if the band isn't around anymore. And ghosts are far more fun to listen to than old rich men anyhow.