I find it a bit interesting that there's so much disagreement over when the "right" time for the band to break up would have been. Automatic for the People came out in 1992, almost twenty years ago, and marked a sort of high-water mark in the band's popularity and critical acclaim. Quitting then would have meant that they went out "on top" by having a trajectory that only went upward along all axes (fame, fortune, and respect). Monster, from 1994, was the last huge commercial success that they had; it went quadruple-platinum, and every record since then has seen declining sales. Quitting then would have cemented their commercial legacy. Many people think that the logical time for R.E.M. to break up would have been after New Adventures in Hi-Fi in 1996, when Bill Berry left the band. (Famously, he told the other three that he wanted to leave, but would stay if that's what it took to keep the band together.) For anyone who thinks that R.E.M. did the right thing in continuing to make music after 1996, most people seem to be happy that they went all the way until now.
In retrospect, 1997 was probably the most important year in the band's history. The obvious reason was Bill Berry's departure. However, this was also the year that Radiohead released OK Computer, which shook up the rock world that R.E.M. helped create. R.E.M. generally and Michael Stipe in particular had acted as mentors to Radiohead since they first arrived in the early 90's, bringing them along on their tours and acting like elder brothers as they navigated the business of music. Thom Yorke, who had worried early on that his band was sounding too much like R.E.M., later on embraced their similar styles, only to keep on pushing and eventually eclipse them with his radical innovation. OK Computer (and later Kid A) opened up huge new territories for rock bands to explore, and I think that everything R.E.M. has done since then has been driven by their excitement and curiosity at moving into that space.
There's an old and trite choice between being a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond. I feel like pre-1997, R.E.M. was one of the biggest fishes in the pond of alternative rock. After 1997, they moved into a different pond that was much bigger, with a much wider array of potential to explore. They never dominated this new pond like they did the old, but they became an even better fish.
Obviously, I'm glad that we got to hold on to R.E.M. for as long as we did. Here are fifteen reasons why I'm happy that they didn't call it quits after 1996, and blessed us with five more albums over fifteen years.
- Walk Unafraid
- Saturn Return
- Imitation of Life
- Chorus and the Ring
- Leaving New York
- Living Well is the Best Revenge
- Sing for the Submarine
- It Happened Today
I think that whenever a person or group makes something that's good, the world gets a tinier bit better as a result. R.E.M. hasn't been making as big a splash over the past decade, but they've been more quietly making a bunch of really, really good music. Listening to it has made my life more pleasurable, and I know that these songs and more will continue to make me happier throughout the rest of my days. I'm grateful to them for giving me those gifts, and wish them all the best in whatever comes next.