Wow, it’s been 25 years since Automatic for the People debuted. Double-wow, it’s been six whole years without R.E.M. as an active outfit. Either one of those reactions makes a lot of sense this week. In the first case, it’s hard to believe that an album we kept holstered, cocked, and ready throughout our adolescences has turned a quarter-century old. In the second, we acknowledge that we’ve been drifting through a slightly emptier world for some time now without Athens’ favorite sons. In either case, our reactions signify much the same thing. This was a damn fine band at the height of their global popularity back when Automatic emerged, and they were nearly as fine when they hung it up earlier this decade.
You can’t make that claim for many bands. Then again, R.E.M. wasn’t like many other bands. And looking back through their body of work, you also realize they were far from a perfect band. But what made them special was a singular momentum that allowed them to evolve, adapt, and carry on. They always seemed to be figuring things out rather than polishing what they’d built and perfected. The toll of popularity, rigors of touring the globe, losing a founding band member, pressures to follow up both groundbreaking and career-stalling records — none of these challenges, or any others, seemed to ever keep Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry down for very long. In fact, the band made a habit of coming back and feeling more indispensable than ever — gifting us albums, songs, and performances that once taken in can never be truly taken away.
We grew up on them, we grew with them, and now we’re growing old together… And we feel fine.