Listen to R.E.M. and it’s hard to put your finger on any single innovation with which they can be credited. Yet for more than 20 years they’ve been making some of the most distinctively beautiful music of our times, characterised by a rare melodic brilliance, the enigmatic lyrical flair of Michael Stipe, a rich and eclectic vision and a consistently uncompromising spirit that has remained intact, even when selling 10 million copies of an album like Automatic For The People.
Over their long career they have grown and diversified. And yet in a way they have never really changed. Their full-length debut album, 1983’s Murmur, was built around the age-old four-piece format of guitar, voice, bass and drums. There was no studio trickery and they weren’t even technically very proficient. Yet few bands have wrenched so much feeling and emotion out of such simple elements.
Through the ’80s they grew from college parties to filling football stadiums by playing the same style of garage-tinged folk rock and by the time of Green, their first album for Warners in 1988, they were on their way to becoming the biggest band in the world. The dramatic growth of Peter Buck as a musician meant his ringing guitar took on a greater force and they hit a purple patch with the release of Out Of Time and Automatic within little more than a year during 1991-2.
They’ve barely faltered since. There have been experiments with different textures and instruments and each album has displayed a subtly different personality – Monster (1994) had a harder rock edge, Up (1998) was more conversational, Reveal (2001) struck out for the sunny uplands. Yet their core values remain unshakeable and 2004’s Around The Sun was another masterpiece, which in “Leaving New York” and “Boy In The Well” contained songs to rank alongside their all-time best.