Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The R.E.M. That Never Fully Was

By Evan Rytlewski
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In anticipation of summer, Muzzle of Bees posted a clip of R.E.M.'s "Nightswimming," a heavenly track from the band's 1992 masterwork Automatic for the People, an oddity in the band's canyon now seen as a precursor to the current chamber-folk movement. "It's increasingly difficult to hear the album without imagining that its songs have somehow always existed in the world," Fluxblog founder  Matthew Perpetua mused in an essay for Stereogum's 15th anniversary tribute to the record. "Whereas most other rock bands at the time either embraced the aggressive, self-destructive angst of grunge or the brainy, aloof irony of indie rock, the Athens quartet presented something far more singular and timeless in the form of a tightly composed, occasionally baroque song cycle obsessed with mortality and the passage of time."

That Muzzle of Bees post is all the excuse I need to post my own favorite R.E.M. song, "Country Feedback," a funereal respite from the mostly chipper pop of the band's scattered 1991 major-label debut, Out of Time.  Every version of the song I've ever heard absolutely guts me:

 

­Part of what makes these songs so beguiling is that they're the outliers of R.E.M.'s catalog, suggesting a path that the band considered but never traveled. Although the band's pining melodies have long lent themselves to acoustic treatments—and still do—the band has never recorded a true acoustic album, or even a follow-up to Automatic for the People, preferring instead frilly, one-dimensional studio-pop albums or, for last year's comeback record, electric-rock throwbacks. That folky, baleful undercurrent that runs through the group's cryptic early work still exists, though, and if the band focused on tapping it again I have no doubt that they'd be able to create something as fresh and as pure as Automatic.

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