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Lessons of R.E.M.: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

r.e.m.Reactions to the recent breakup of R.E.M. ranged from shock to nostalgia to acceptance. After 31 years — effectively three times as long as The Beatles were on the radar, or five times as long as The Clash had our attention — R.E.M. packed it in with a simple, matter-of-fact update on their website. After 15 studio albums and umpteen world tours, and lionization by some as one of the greatest American rock bands, R.E.M. just stopped the bus and got off.

Was it past time?

We loved their best albums — Murmur, Lifes Rich Pageant, Automatic for the People — as well as others that were nearly as great. They never released anything boring (unless you count 2004’s Around the Sun, which, in fairness, only seemed dull next to everything else they did). They somehow sustained a recognizable identity over three decades while continually showing different facets of it. We ultimately saw every room in the R.E.M. house, through every door and window.

The wheels started to come off for R.E.M. in the mid-’90s, when drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm while the band was touring Europe behind Monster. He soon retreated to his Georgia farm, leaving Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, and Mike Mills to soldier on as a three-legged dog. Sometimes this mattered and sometimes it didn’t, but the balanced chemistry the band had enjoyed since the beginning — driven by Berry’s straight-ahead, propulsive style — evolved, or dissolved, into a more mannered, less lively formula for music-making. After the exhilarating experiments of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, R.E.M. settled into a cozy studio domesticity with Up and Reveal, coasting through the millennium and gently scraping bottom with Around the Sun.

So why didn’t R.E.M. just break up when Berry left? Because they needed to find out what was left for them. The remaining members were loath to stop short of The End. Regardless of how it played out, it’s hard to begrudge them their courageous pursuit. Their last albums, Accelerate and Collapse into Now, fit comfortably, even admirably, into the heart of their canon. In light of the inevitability, after three decades together, of repeating themselves, making something fresh was likely more difficult than it appeared.

And now R.E.M. knows.  Breaking up is hard to do — until it’s all that’s left.


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