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Talk About the Passion 

20 years into R.E.M.'s career, the bar-band fire burns on.

R.E.M.: Still acclimating to life as a trio.
  • R.E.M.: Still acclimating to life as a trio.

It's been proposed that two distinct types of music fans came of age in the 1980s: the separate but equal followers of U2 and R.E.M. The argument can be entertaining, and it's also ultimately pointless. But there's good reason why one might perceive that a distinction still exists between the two audiences.

U2, with its 1980s piety and epic arpeggios, often seems to transcend this earthly plane; its music is imbued with a universal spirituality akin to organized religion. And like Catholicism, U2 tends to place a certain amount of distance between itself and its worshipers.

The poetic introspection and Southern mysticism that brought R.E.M. global superstardom, however, has somehow always seemed more personal and intimate: the kind of salt-of-the-earth secular humanism tailored to fringe-dwellers who thrive on being individual. Despite their enduring star power, R.E.M.'s members, at heart and in practice, aren't much different from their fans -- or their own bohemian, Rickenbacker-toting selves of 1983, when they and the Replacements tore up the Flats underground hangout the Pirate's Cove.

For starters, tunes played on their current tour (a warm-up for the October release of In Time: 1988-2003, The Best of R.E.M. ) predate their 1982 debut EP "Chronic Town" and span every album through 2001's Reveal. Hits like "Losing My Religion," "Everybody Hurts," and "Man on the Moon" appear alongside chestnuts like the never officially released early rave-up "Permanent Vacation" and the Mike Mills vocal vehicle "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville," which hadn't been performed regularly in concert since 1986.

"It is a rare tour for us that we don't have a whole record's worth of new songs to work with," admits Mills, the band's bespectacled bassist. "So we're just taking this opportunity to look back a little bit and celebrate everything we've done. It's like going back to the old neighborhood and visiting old friends, in a way."

Skeptics might still chalk up the retrospection to yet another band past its heyday. And on paper, it's difficult to reconcile this R.E.M. with the ragtag quartet that packed Athens, Georgia bars on the strength of guitarist Peter Buck's tightly coiled jangle, Michael Stipe's unpolished vocals, and drummer Bill Berry's shimmying beats. Lukewarm album reviews have replaced Pazz & Jop gushing for the mumbling folk enigmas of their 1983 full-length debut, Murmur. Likewise, the massive U.S. commercial success and MTV saturation of the early 1990s orchestral elegies Out of Time and Automatic for the People have dissipated.

But equating R.E.M.'s worth as a band with tangible achievements is contrary to its very essence. Though they made college rock palatable to the masses, their original intention wasn't to transform music, only to follow their own muse. Top 10 hits like "The One I Love" and "Stand" were reflections of the mainstream conforming to the group's tunes and warming up to its eccentricities, not vice versa.

In fact, R.E.M. has always delighted in contrasts. The murky folkadelica of 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction begat the crisp, howling rock of the following year's Life's Rich Pageant; Automatic's haunted ruminations on life and death preceded the buzzing, noisy songs about obsession on 1994's Monster. Even 1998's dreary Up, their first record as a trio after Berry left the band, was followed by the Beach Boys homage Reveal, the sunniest record of their career. The experiments might not have always been successful, but at least they revealed a band that was never content to succumb to formula.

"Even though we're enjoying this tour very much, our focus is soon to be on the next CD anyway," says Mills. "We are playing two, sometimes three new songs at this point. And I don't think it'd be really fair to throw the word 'nostalgia' at us, when we've always played new stuff. This just happens to be because of the timing of the record release; this is the one time we're touring on a record that doesn't have 10 or 12 new songs. I don't ever think of the word 'R.E.M.' and 'nostalgia' at the same time."

The new songs he refers to include the twangy barnstormer of a single "Bad Day" (which, ironically enough, is a reworking of a demo from the sessions for Pageant) and "Animal," a suitably howling rocker reminiscent of the punch packed by the arena-busters on Monster. Mills can't say for sure whether either of the songs is indicative of the feel of the next studio album, but his enthusiasm for moving ahead is palpable.

"We're actually very excited about the next CD," he says with a laugh. "I don't know specific direction. I would imagine that it's going to be a little bit less lush than Reveal was. Reveal was extremely textured, and I think this one will be a little sparser. I mean, it's not going to sound like Iggy & the Stooges, but it'll be a little more raw."

Bootleg MP3s of a Holland show in June hint at a loose raucousness and freedom reminiscent of their earliest days as quasi-surf garage rockers. A thrashing run-through of Fables' "Life and How to Live It" begins raggedly out of sync; Reckoning's "Little America" sprinkles in a few Stipean "fuck it"'s and replaces the word "Jefferson" with "Washington" before the line "I think we're lost," creating an obvious dig at our government's inability to learn from its history. These numbers don't sound nearly two decades old; they vibrantly flip the bird to complacency, lending a sense that R.E.M. is undeniably having fun on this tour.

"You're not really a band if you don't play live," Mills says. "I love being on the road. To me, that's why you're in a band. I mean, making records is great, but the point of playing music with other people is to get out and do it live, so I'm always happy to be touring."

The U2-vs.-R.E.M. argument easily crops up again when the subject of retrospective tours arises. Unlike U2, whose parade of hits on its last tour again propelled the band to mythic heights, R.E.M.'s trek through the back pages seems to have transformed it back into the approachable bar band that revolutionized college rock. In fact, it could be that by trotting out the old songs of their past, they're on the cusp of a new beginning.

"It's probably the last time we'll tour without having a whole bunch of new songs to play," Mills says. "But since Bill left the band a couple of albums ago, it's just a way for us to maybe close the door on a certain phase of the band.

"We're getting really comfortable being a three-piece now. And so in that sense, going from a four-piece to a three-piece, it's taken us a while to get really used to it, and that's what I mean by closing the door. There was a four-piece R.E.M., and now there's a three-piece R.E.M. We've been sort of unknown in America for the last couple of years. And we just want people to know that we're still here, and we're still doing some amazing work."

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