Aristocratic for the People: R.E.M. Collapse in the Now

Warner Bros. 2011

In the early 1980’s, R.E.M. practically invented indie rock. In a time in which what was heard on the radio chocked up to soulless, metal-hair-brained schlock or limp, tepid balladry, R.E.M’s paranoiac brand of guitar pop offered a much needed shot of adrenaline into the arm of a tired and aimless music industry.

Now it’s 2011, and R.E.M. is just another part of OUR tired and aimless music industry.

It’s not like any of us should be surprised – it happens to the best of every type of person. People start out young, vibrant, and eager to change their surroundings; eventually, they end up old, jaded, and longing for the way things were. There is a way to age gracefully, however, and R.E.M. certainly missed the meeting on that one. Considering they rejected a Geffen deal back in their heyday based on the label’s treatment of Neil Young, one of their all-time heroes, one would think R.E.M. would have learned a thing or two from Young concerning growing old in the limelight. One of his first lessons would most likely be that old people can never be cool, so as you grow older, don’t even try to be. R.E.M. simply cannot grasp this, and are still hanging on with all their might to every last shred of fading hip that perhaps has managed to collect like dust on their old clothes or LP’s.

In fact, it seems those old clothes or LP’s might have caused the band to lapse into a complete time warp to a time in which new album releases were advertised on television. Their new album Collapse Into Now, $25 on vinyl, comes with no download card, but at least they gave us an accompanying television commercial. Let me back up a bit – NO download card in the record. Really? These days, that is heresy. And a TV commercial? That’s just not done AT ALL anymore. Who had the last one of those? Chris Gaines?

But honestly, I don’t know whether to spit in the face of this behemoth veteran band and their evil label, or to give them a knowing wink and a nudge. It is terrible to refuse people who pay $25 for your record a simple and free way to put the album on their digital accoutrements, but in this day and age of rampant internet piracy, it could almost be viewed as the enabling mother and father deciding they have had enough of the behavior of their child and, in true Intervention fashion, simply cutting off all support in hopes they will get the message. But really, I think it’s a marketing strategy aimed at R.E.M.’s core fan base, made up of mainly 35-50 year olds who may be a touch more ignorant than younger folks as to how music actually works these days. Many of these people may not even know about download cards…but then again, they probably wouldn’t be buying new vinyl either. Maybe some of them would, but those who don’t will just get the CD, and that’s OK, cuz they probably wouldn’t be sharing it online or anything. They may not ever take it out of their home stereo.

If all this stuff sounds terrible, it’s not meant that way. It’s meant to be realistic, and analytical. Most importantly, it’s meant to point out R.E.M.’s version of “keeping it old school”, which involves old school “tough love” mass music marketing. In the sense of the album itself, it sounds like old school R.E.M., but more like a band trying really hard to make songs that sound like old school R.E.M – well, major label old school R.E.M. Granted, this doesn’t always end up bad, and in fact, the album isn’t horrible. It just seems very paint-by-numbers, and often ends up feeling like it is of no consequence – a little old trick from Green here, a little “Ignoreland” Stipe-ian sass there, peppered with plenty of “Losing My Religion” and “You are the Everything” style mandolin from Peter Buck, and no one is harmed in the process. But, no one is blown away either. It’s a formula that has been proven to succeed, but in no way is it innovative or forward-thinking. That would be fine and all, but the one time the band actually tries to do something different manifests itself in the form of spoken-word album closer “Blue”, which may very well be the worst song the band has laid to tape in its storied career. But overall, Collapse should be successful in the act of quenching the thirst of the much-devoted R.E.M. fan, of which there are still plenty – and with the help of this blast-from-the-past ad campaign, these same fans will likely be joining in the time warp.

The messed up thing about R.E.M.’s approach here, I think, is taking advantage of the ignorance of their fan base rather than promoting an evolution in how the world deals with music. The download card is a great example of this – it is old news by now, of course, but it obviously should be promoted and supported even more if labels and/or bands are still this resistant to it.

Fat Possum 2011

Another change younger bands like Yuck, Deerhunter, and even kingpins like Radiohead are adopting is to simplify their packaging so they can charge less money for their records. The most recent albums by all of these bands are generally $14 or less at your local record store, and though you won’t get gatefold sleeves and in some cases not even full color, you will get a download card.

Temporary Residence Ltd. 2011

Of course, the opposite is true, as well. The latest LP from Explosions in the Sky folds out into a little house. Sure, it’s unnecessary, but it’s also quite the beguiling affair for a record nerd, i.e. the people that are buying records these days. That thing is around $30, but at least it offers a unique experience. Also, somewhere in the house, a download card is hidden.

Come on, R.E.M. – was the gatefold really that necessary, or expensive? Why no card? It seems like a slap in the face to your fans, who are mostly people that have been supporting you for many, many years. What happened to the days when you could recognize how important these people were and show them the respect they deserve? Is it that expensive to maintain this wannabe glam-rocker image you’ve been pushing since the Monster era? Does Peter Buck know how fucking horrible he looks right now?

I hate to get crazy about the whole thing, but these guys were once innovators. It’s sad, and somewhat tragic, actually. But worst of all, it’s embarrassing – a hide-your-head-in-your-hands, cover-your-face-with-your-arms kind of embarrassing. It may not seem like a big deal to most people since the album itself is not bad, but for me, it’s a fall from grace, a total collapse of wills and principles to the evil forces of the now.

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3 Responses to “Aristocratic for the People: R.E.M. Collapse in the Now”

  1. rastronomicals Says:

    it sounds like old school R.E.M., but more like a band trying really hard to make songs that sound like old school R.E.M – well, major label old school R.E.M. Granted, this doesn’t always end up bad, and in fact, the album isn’t horrible

    It occurs to me that if you replace “R.E.M.” with “Metallica” in the above, you get a very useful review of Death Magnetic

    • recordgeekheaven Says:

      While I am not familiar with Death Magnetic, I can agree with your comparison of the two bands in question as far as their approach to making records late in their careers. They both are bands in a position of not only having a shitton of fans, but thanks to the fact they have been around for multiple decades, the knowledge of what those fans expect from them. Most bands are here and gone before they are privy to that sort of knowledge – so can we really blame the Metallica’s and R.E.M.’s of the world?

  2. Kaley Says:

    Hey, you?re the goto expert. Thanks for haingng out here.

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