On September 21, R.E.M. broke up. They did so not in feud or tragedy, but in the collective agreement that it was the right time. For lead singer Michael Stipe, “The skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave.” Unceremoniously, the band posted the announcement on their website, concluding the legacy of the 31-year-old band that changed rock music forever.
It was R.E.M. who laid the foundation for the college/alternative rock scene. Throughout the 1980s their popularity grew, but their records showed no musical compromise. Infinitely influential to their peers and utterly unlike anything else at the time, they developed a cult following until 1987’s hit “The One I Love” ushered them into the mainstream.
The ’90s brought even greater success, culminating in the hugely popular album Automatic for the People —including the song “Man on the Moon”, which gave its name to the famous film they wrote the soundtrack for. The second half of their career was more turbulent than the first, but little can be said to argue for or against the overall timeless quality of their music.
The albums are eternal, but the biggest loss is R.E.M. as a live act. I had the pleasure of seeing them in 2008. Two bands, whose existence and musical journey would have been wholly different without R.E.M, opened: Modest Mouse and The National. Each of the acts arguably represented a peak in alternative music for their respective decade: the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. The younger bands played positively stunning sets, but R.E.M. still came out on top that night.
It’s a shame that audiences will never experience another R.E.M. show. Stipe was a wonder to see in action. The show was revelatory for a casual fan, as I somewhat was. For fans, it just answered a question that there was no sense in asking. The excellent songwriting gelled with the great performances of all the musicians, forever bringing the music to life.
The band has not announced future plans, but this will almost certainly not be the last we hear from these talented musicians. However, as long as Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills are alive, R.E.M. could always reform. The last decade has seen far more reclusive bands and artists return (thank you, Jeff Mangum). Even bands that broke up decades ago are reuniting, ready to claim their deserved respect (here’s looking at you, Pixies). One cannot lose faith that one day the world will see another R.E.M. show. Rock and roll has a way of never fully letting go.
For myself, this retirement hasn’t yet conjured the feelings of loss I would once have associated with it. By all accounts, the band is still on friendly terms. A few years is a long time, and a band of 31 years must be hard to give up forever. So we’ll have to wait and see if this disbanding is final, or if it is only a break. For now, discover, rediscover, or remain locked in that R.E.M. groove. You’re in good hands.