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Portrait of the Artist as an Aging Man Returning to His Roots

For my birthday, Jane sent me R.E.M.’s latest album, Accelerate. She knows I’ve been listening to them since 1986. Except for one album in the early 00’s, I tend to buy them on the day of release or very soon after. The press about Accelerate sort of pissed me off, so I was in no rush. Critics praised the album, saying the band had returned to their guitar-driven roots. I hate when critics say such things, as if a band is always better when they sound like they did in the beginning. For one thing, Accelerate doesn’t sound like jangly, early-80s R.E.M.; it’s more like the band’s howling, mid-90s sound. Rather than returning to their roots, it sounds as if they revised an earlier style by merging it with the sound of their last album.

Which brings me to another point about what those critics seem to be missing: the last album was very much guitar-driven, although it was quieter than Accelerate. I’m guessing that critics get off on Accelerate‘s loud, garage-band energy. Their last few albums were more quiet and reflective, which are qualities allowed only by a few rock or country dinosaurs. From anyone else, quiet-and-reflective points to self-indulgence and pretention, which are located about halfway down the slippery slope to unmanliness. (Except for rare exceptions–e.g., glam, Prince–this seems to be considered a bad thing.)

What rock critics–at least many who write for the corporate rock publications–seem to yearn for most is the sound of a smart band playing loud music; it’s like watching a well-designed car chase sequence that is actually integral to the plot of a movie. But they can’t just say they like Accelerate for that reason, which really should be enough. They have to make grand claims that R.E.M. have saved themselves from Adult Contemporary irrelevance. (Oh, yes, in the past few years, I haven’t known whether I was listening to R.E.M. or Celine Dion. Thank you, Oh Divine rock critics, for saving ME as well.)

There seems an extreme distrust of experimentation, unless, of course, the results work brilliantly according to a particular listener’s standards. I’m betting that the album of remixes from earlier this decade must have pissed off a lot of R.E.M. purists. I’m all for change, because for all the times it’s a move of desperation, more often it pays off. For example, I’m fascinated by two apology-centered songs, the jangly “So. Central Rain” from 1984 and 1998’s “The Apologist” with its rich mix of piano, organ, guitar, and electronic percussion. In both, singer/lyricist Michael Stipe sings “I’m sorry” repeatedly. In the former, he is sorry for things beyond his control, whereas in the latter he seems to admit responsibility. They both have the R.E.M. sound, but are quite distinct. Maybe because the band members are more mature. Or maybe because over 14 years’ time, things are bound to change, at least a little, if you let them.

Staying the same for years guarantees irrelevance, too. If R.E.M. and other artists who simply won’t go away did not experiment, then purists could not experience the thrill of the so-called homecoming, which is really what satisfies. “Oh, the band sounds like I remember them back when I was in high school. How comforting.” Which is sadly un-cool of them.

Artists are not responsible for comforting the audience. They should explore new possibilities and be willing to make the audience uncomfortable. That’s actually why I started listening to R.E.M. They sounded different, and the lyrics were odd. Much of my Angry Young Man writing was an attempt to find my inner Michael Stipe. I made A’s in English; I knew the rules. But I wanted to say things that weren’t designed to win permission. Writing songs that was freeing but frustrating; I liked creating them, but not having the skills to write music for them made me feel as if I were singing to myself, which I guess I was. I realized I wanted an audience, even though the threat of being found out as someone with unrevised thoughts to share is enough to shut some writers down completely.

I still struggle with the tension between what Linda Flower calls writer-based and reader-based writing. Every writer struggles with this. A thought doesn’t necessarily have form that will make sense to others, or that will be easy to translate into language. Writing is the process of helping others understand those thoughts. Even if I wrote lyrics for a band whose reputation was largely grounded in cryptic lyrics, I would take some shit when audience members didn’t get my point. The trick seems to be to get them to care enough that they might be missing something interesting, so they will ask for clarification, or at least complain in a public forum.

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