On Sept. 21, in conjunction with the announcement of their break-up, alternative rock mainstay R.E.M. revealed plans to assemble a career-spanning compilation for their final collaboration.
Entitled Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011, this two-disc release is the long-awaited retrospective of their 31-year recording career, cherry-picking the best of their hit singles, critic picks, fan favorites as well as several other lesser-known songs from their 15 studio releases.
Capping off the album, which was released on Nov. 11, are three new songs, penned by R.E.M. founding members Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe.
Like fellow rockers the Rolling Stones, R.E.M. often finds itself at the center of the debate about when musical acts should call it quits.
Some critics argue that it’s better to bow out gracefully at the top of one’s game than to wait until the time comes when the artist can no longer perform up to par.
Yet others will aver that successful bands like the Stones and R.E.M. have earned the right to continue “doing their thing” because it’s what they love to do and their fans still find them to be a worthy investment. In the case of R.E.M., as evidenced by 2011’s Collapse Into Now, the band is obviously still up to par and in love with what they do. So why retire now?
According to bassist Mike Mills in a recent article in Rolling Stone, it’s because the moment “just feels right.”
Fittingly enough, so does the record. Condensing over three decades of material onto two discs is no easy task, certainly, but doing so while making it sound cohesive and relevant is quite another. However, R.E.M. seems to have pulled it off rather splendidly.
Rather than attempting to leap back and forth through the years, placing their biggest hits first, they simply arranged the tracks in chronological order, beginning with “Gardening the Night” from 1982’s Chronic Town EP, and concluding with the 2011’s “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter,” from Collapse Into Now.
And, much to my surprise, it all sounds nearly perfect.
Notice that I said nearly perfect. While the discs themselves are presented in a highly listenable fashion, and contain all the radio hits and favorites one would expect from a spanner like this one, I feel that it fails in its exclusion of rarities and live tracks.
“Radio Free Europe” (First national television appearance)
Perhaps, instead of handing us songs from the listless Monster and the overpolished Around the Sun, R.E.M. could have included tracks from the excellent live release Live at the Olympia or rare B-sides from their early 80s singles. A live rendition of “Radio Free Europe” or “Losing My Religion,” maybe? Or perhaps more of their forays into folk? Despite this flaw, I must give the band credit for trying to appease the largest number of fans possible.
Listening to the last three tracks of Part Lies reminds me that, no matter how hard a band will try, they can never completely bring back the beautiful sloppiness of angsty young fingers on a fretboard.
“King of Birds” (From Tourfilm)
Inevitably, after playing together for so long, a band like R.E.M. is going to sound naturally polished and “ritualized.” In terms of technical ability, Stipe, Mills, Buck and Bill Berry are all top-notch, but together, they no longer sound entirely inspired.
Perhaps, head in the clouds with the thought of retirement, R.E.M. was not really trying all that hard. Nonetheless, the three tracks, which are called “A Month of Saturdays,” “We All Go Back To Where Be Belong” and “Hallelujah” are a pleasant echo of R.E.M.’s halycon days when they ruled the alt. rock airwaves.
All in all, I think R.E.M. deserves to rest on their laurels and enjoy “life’s rich pageant.”
“Cuyahoga” (From MTV Unplugged)
Bob Barringer is a contributing writer for Aviso AVW.