REM : In Time: The Best Of REM 1988-2003

What? No 'Shiny Happy People'?...

The borderline between evergreen alt-rock elder

statesmen and deathless careerist dinosaurs is often

very hazy. [a]REM[/a] were certainly a vital cultural force

when they first signed to a major label 15 years ago

after a fertile, promise-filled apprenticeship as

America’s answer to [a]Smiths[/a]. Michael Stipe’s gangly

crew virtually invented ‘alternative’ rock. When the mainstream US media wasawash with mullet-haired metal clowns, Stipe and co

offered a genuine antidote to Reagan-Thatcher macho

triumphalism that was intelligent, bookish, sexually

ambivalent and steeped in a quasi-literary Americana.

[a]REM[/a] laid much of the groundwork for [a]Nirvana[/a] and

[a]Sonic Youth[/a], [a]Beck[/a] and the [a]Pixies[/a]. Taken from ‘Green’,

their 1989 breakthrough, ‘Stand’ is anthemic and

bouncy, a skewed state-of-the-nation address disguised

as a ‘Sesame Street’ singalong. ‘Orange Crush’ is more

menacing, its headlong melody spiked with Stipe’s

descending, minor-chord harmonies. Cerebral and

opaquely political, they use folk-rock traditionalism

like a Trojan Horse.

When grunge raged and howled, [a]REM[/a] went eloquently

quiet, applauding the punk spirit while retreating

even deeper into rootsy Americana. Two landmark

stadium-folk albums in the early 1990s became

multi-million-sellers and clarion calls for incoming

president Clinton’s vision of a caring, sharing

superpower. ‘Out Of Time’ spawned the mandolin-powered

mega-hit ‘Losing My Religion’, dynamic and spare and

haunted by secret wisdom. Then the pared-down

‘Automatic For the People’, all hushed piano and

strings, fused the freewheeling country-rock homage

‘Man On The Moon’ with rueful, intimate, spin-tingling

short stories like ‘Nightswimming’. The stately,

aching waltz ‘Everybody Hurts’ became an unofficial US

national anthem in 1992. Stipe was iconic, intriguing,


But then came – what? Overexposure? Flimsy rebel

credentials tamed by success? Retreat into

wealth-cushioned playboy-liberal bohemianism? Just as

the prosaic realpolitik of Clinton diluted [a]REM[/a]’s

mildly left-leaning edge, so the death of Kurt Cobain

pulled the alt-rock rug from under them. With their

belated 1994 response to grunge, the amped-up UK

chart-topper ’Monster’ , the Stipe brigade no longer

looked elegantly out of time but slightly behind the

times. Beneath Peter Buck’s juddering power chords on

the burly bruiser ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ , a

sense of rudderless repetition took hold.

A massive $80 million contract renewal in 1996 and

drummer Bill Berry’s departure in 1997 further

strained [a]REM[/a]’s image as the Last Indie Noblemen.

And their output was becoming pleasantly inessential tunes, from

the opiated lullaby ‘All The Way To Reno’ to the

swooning waltz of ‘Daysleeper’, but they were now

firmly entrenched as official poster boys for Nick

Hornby-reading, Middle Youth suburbanites. Even people

with the most conservative musical and political

tastes bought [a]REM[/a] by the bucketload. Who did Tony

Blair name as his favourite band as far back as 1994?

Take a guess.

‘In Time’ is inevitably a selective history,

annoyingly so at times. There’s no ‘Near Wild Heaven’,

no ‘Radio Song’, and only those who snap up early

copies with the patchy limited-edition bonus disc of

B-sides and rarities will get an acoustic ‘Pop Song

‘89’ and a live version of ’Drive’ . Most perverse of

all is the glaring absence of ‘Shiny Happy People’, a

transatlantic Top Ten in 1991 and [a]REM[/a]’s biggest hit

to date. The band dislike it, but hey – [a]Radiohead[/a] hate

‘Creep’, Underworld are ambivalent about ‘Born

Slippy’. Big deal. Get over it. Don’t treat your

listeners with indie-snob contempt.

Even the two new tunes are minor, déjà vu affairs.

‘Bad Day’ is a pleasingly vigorous country-punk

torrent of allegedly politicised spite, but it’s

characteristically vague and strongly reminiscent of

the ancient [a]REM[/a] standard ‘It’s The End of The World

As We Know It’. Meanwhile, ‘Animal’ is bubblegum

powerpop with twangsome retro guitars, more [a]Monkees[/a]

than [a]Pixies[/a].

Peter Buck’s farcical outburst of mid-air yoghurt rage

in 2001 shattered any remaining alt-rock godfather

cred that [a]REM[/a] once possessed. Respect is due for

helping to reshape the mainstream, but Stipe’s journey

from America’s Morrissey to Kurt’s Big Brother to Thom

Yorke’s Oddball Mate has been mostly taken in downward

steps. Since 1988, pop has progressed in mighty leaps

while [a]REM[/a] have hardly moved. Celebrity mates like

[a]Radiohead[/a] and even [a]U2[/a] make far more radical,

passionate and progressive records. But where is

Stipe’s legacy now beyond smug, humourless,

whiny-voiced boho poseurs like [a]Placebo[/a] or the Dandy


‘In Time’ is a two-thirds decent compilation, but also

a revealing overview of a once-vital supergroup in

mid-life stagnation. They should have called in

‘Losing My Direction’.

Stephen Dalton

Get ‘In Time’ at the NME Shop