photo manipulations by nacrowe
R.E.M. BY MTV (VIACOM, 2014) is a pretty straightforward documentary cobbled together from, you guessed it, archival interview and performance footage of the band on MTV from throughout their career. the result of which is a surprisingly intimate narrative that for the most part is told in first-person from the band's perspective, as well as a sprinkling of record producers, record executives and the like.
the value of this documentary for me had nothing to do with their biography (of which i will spare you any plot summary), but rather the mysterious alchemy that was their songwriting process and how it was affected over time by external factors. in a sense their process was very pure as their was a communal ethic to their process. each brought in material and as a group they would mold it into shape. importantly this was concept was buttressed by the business decision to split publishing royalties evenly, which might sound like a boring detail but you'd be surprised how many bands have fallen by the wayside due to this important decision. over their career there was a sense of group ownership of their material which only deepened their trust in each other as financial incentives were not an issue.
when i think of guitarist PETER BUCK and his sound it very much reminds me of what JOHNNY MARR termed in his memoir as a "anti-Rockist" approach. like MARR, he tends to have a RICKENBACKER sound that can be at times clean and precise in an almost traditional FOLK sense and then impressionistic with suspended chords drenched in reverb. with R.E.M. there is a definite contrarian streak throughout their career and BUCK's guitar approach reflects such. his use of mandolin on OUT OF TIME (WARNER BROS, 1991) and the incorporation of sounds based in electronic music on later albums in the wake of drummer BILL BERRY's departure being prime examples. fundamentally his work, along with the rhythm section sets the tone that singer MICHAEL STIPE reacts to in his lyrics and vocal approach.
obviously STIPE is an iconic and celebrated singer who both popularized the COLLEGE ROCK / INDIE ROCK of the 1980s as well as helped usher in and very much participated in the ALTERNATIVE ROCK explosion of the 1990s. but to consider what it was he actually contributed is much harder to discern. its almost like the HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE in that the closer you look, the more you are missing the point. taking his cue from the impressionistic sound of his band, there is an intuitiveness to his lyrics and voice. he almost seems to revel in ambiguity, especially early in his career. songs were more about presenting an emotion rather than delivering an idea. the fact that songs are gender neutral only adds to this ambiguity. only after their initial run of albums did he alter slightly his approach to address the bigger crowds at their shows.
what interests me about STIPE's career is how his writing and stage persona tackled this problem while maintaining his credibility. given his greater platform and the vapidness and skullduggery of dealing with the press, he consciously addressed issues he was passionate about including AIDS awareness, animal rights, gun legislation, LGBTQIA issues, etc. maybe this was influenced by his allies in PATTI SMITH, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, ADAM YAUCH, EDDIE VEDDER and KURT COBAIN, all who similarly fearlessly addressed such matters without fear of blowback, almost inviting it. some find this kind of outspokenness pretentious. some find STIPE's opaque lyrics in general pompous as well. as immortally stated in SPINAL TAP, "its a fine line between stupid... and uh, clever." luckily despite such external pressures, STIPE is the type that of artist that has a strong sense of self and follows his own trajectory.
and for me that sense of purpose is the legacy of R.E.M. even years now after their breakup. they are a great example of not compromising artistically and being commercially viable. and that art vs. commerce balance is quite the tight-rope act.
just the idea of listening to yourself is empowering. thats what i take from R.E.M.