You can’t blame a guy if collapsing nearly to his death from a brain aneurysm shifts his priorities in life. Former R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry said it felt as if he’d been hit by a bowling ball when he fell to the ground during a live set in Switzerland in 1995. And that’s probably how his bandmates felt two years later when they heard he was ditching the life of a rock star for the life of a hay farmer–literally. Berry said he was still young enough to try doing something else with his life after “pounding the tubes since I was nine years old.” Trouble was, the band he left behind was still young enough to, you know, keep on being a band.
And so they did. And after the Berry-less lineup dropped LPs like Up, Reveal or Around the Sun, it seemed as if it was time for their fans themselves to feel like they’d been thumped to the ground by a blunt object too. Critics uttered polite murmurs about the “experimental” Up–music critic code for “this kinda sucks but don’t tell them I said that.” The record had its moments–“Lotus,” “The Apologist” and “Walk Unafraid” brandished a bit of that clenched fist the band brandished back in their “Orange Crush” days–but mostly the record washed away in the uncertainty of a band in search of the backbone Berry apparently had taken with him to the farm. “Daysleeper” was the track the label tossed off as the record’s first single only because it was the one song on the album that sounded like something the band had done before. Which is to say it amounted to little more than the work of a band so lost in its pursuit of former glories that they had become virtually irretrievable.
Then came the aimless Reveal, a clutter of dreamy pop numbers that sounded like someone had strapped Brian Wilson to his keyboard and told him to play something that sounded like Peter Gabriel. The Beach Boys, whom Peter Buck and Mike Mills worship, played somewhere off in the distance of seemingly every track on the record. Tracks like the warmly received (and Grammy-nominated) “Imitation of Life” or “All the Way to Reno” were nice, but “nice” just doesn’t pass the sniff test when you’re the guys who did “Radio Free Europe” and “It’s End of the World As We Know It.” And trying to distinguish one track from the next on the record felt too much like trying to explain the difference between velvet and velour. A few years later, the comprehensive indifference with which fans and critics alike greeted 2004’s disastrous Around the Sun was an appropriate response to an album so starving for ideas it played like a 13-track epitaph.
That’s an awful lot of failure to lay on one departed drummer’s shoulders; it seems more likely that Berry jumped out the window of the burning building his band was about to become–a band out of ideas, in search of the reason it got into this business in the first place, and so satiated by the fame and fortune they’d found in the meantime that songs that once swung with two white-knuckled fists now only flailed with the leathery arms of a drunk down the street from where they’d been. So consider 2008’s fiery Accelerate the “Oh shit!” to their fans’ “So what?” It had been a long time since these guys played with such frothy abandon. Not since the overlooked 1996 gem Adventures in Hi Fi had they sounded so fresh. Peter Buck cut loose for the first time in nearly 15 years, revisiting the guitar-hero mode he indulged on prior masterpieces like “Bang and Blame,” “Departure” or “The Wake Up Bomb.”
The record glowed with the roaring radiance of a sun storm, and if the band intended its rejuvination as an announcement that they were back, Accelerate’s reception proved that indeed they were.The record went to #2 on the Billboard 200 and whipped up a storm of media attention no R.E.M. release had enjoyed since 1998, when the music world wondered what the hell their first album without Bill Berry would sound like.
Now they hope to prove that they were serious–returning with a new LP in Collapse Into Now that’s due out March 8th, and inviting a familiar cast of characters along for the show. Patti Smith, who cut a brilliant duet with Stipe on Hi Fi’s “E-Bow the Letter” and again on her own “Last Call” the following year, is back with the band this time around on a track called “Blue,” and she’s bringing her band’s long-time guitar-slinger Lenny Kaye along with her. Producer Jacknife Lee, the man at the console on Accelarate, is apparently reprising his role this time around, and we’ll forgive the band its reported collaboration with Eddie Vedder on the record’s first single, “It Happened Today.”
Mills told SPIN recently that the new LP boasts a few more rockers in the vein of its 2008 predecessor, sprinkled with a helping of what he calls “some really slow, beautiful songs” and “some nice mid-tempo ones.” As long as those nice mid-tempo ones aren’t “nice” in the same way that Reveal was, it sounds like R.E.M. may be about to do something they haven’t done in nearly 20 years–put out two consecutive great records.