R.E.M., ‘Man-Sized Wreath’

R.E.M.

We need a dose of healthy scepticism to tackle the thorny old “return to form”: was it up to much in the first place? Did the artist really lose it or just fall out of fashion? If they lost their mojo, have they genuinely rediscovered it? And were they better when they had hair?

It’s particularly hard with R.E.M. –  who seem to tempt these fanfares with every other release – because no one can agree when they peaked. Last year’s Accelerate was critically regarded as a near-match for Murmur, an aficionado’s high-point, but R.E.M.’s universal love-in centred around Out of Time and Automatic For The People. No one’s expecting them to reap those commercial riches again, so perhaps it’s safest just to wish for the solid basics again. Do things well, avoid the spectacular, mittens to megasales. On this playing field Accelerate’s a success, but it’s not enough to matter.

Junior’s first reaction was an oddly leading question: “What’s his hair like?” Makes you wonder; can you hear if a singer’s bald? And can we get a government grant to find out? She was pleased to hear about Michael Stipe’s chrome dome anyway, because Harry Hill’s pate has been fascinating enough.

And what about ‘Man-Sized Wreath’? We both enjoyed the steely guitars, the urgent riffing. It’s angry and engaged, with some quotable lines – “Turn on the TV and what do I see? A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up me”, “Nature abhors a vacuum, but what’s between your ears?” – and rousing “wow!”s. On the album it’s tethered by some ordinary pegs, but set against the old-time form this is one track that isn’t shamed.

[15] R.E.M., ‘At My Most Beautiful’

R.E.M.

Stipe’s weirdo stalker ballad fails to keep Junior on the rug. She’s halfway to the plug sockets before she can hear what he leaves on his beloved’s answer phone.

This is a gorgeous little tune, with sparing use of strings and Beach Boysesque “doo-doo”s. It even made the Top 10, but who remembers it? R.E.M. still have an impressive hardcore of fans, despite no one being excited about them since Automatic For The People, and they can usually clock up a solid hit per album. They just don’t seem to matter much these days. To think, there was a time when half the population was up in arms about ‘Shiny Happy People’.

I’m sure their cash keeps them happy, when they’re not flinging yoghurt around on aeroplanes.