Top 5 Biggest Letdown Albums: #1

this is the fifth and final installment in my countdown of my top 5 biggest letdown albums

1. R.E.M. – “Up”

On these past four entries, when I’ve said “I was a huge so-and-so fan,” I’ve meant it, but it all pales in comparison to how huge of an R.E.M. fan I was.

Quick rundown: One of the highlights of getting dial-up internet in my hometown was that I was able to visit the newsgroup.

Once, while in the midst of a 90-minute drive with this girl I liked, I was eagerly playing her new R.E.M. songs from a live bootleg of the Monster tour. She finally said “I think you’re going to have to accept that I’m not as in to R.E.M. as you.”

While on a trip to South Carolina for my cousin’s graduation, I made my parents take us on a detour through Athens, Georgia, where I assumed the gas stations would be full of “Home of R.E.M.” postcards.

To me, R.E.M. was this symbol of how it was okay to just like what you wanted to like. I didn’t really become aware of them until 1989, when “Stand” came out. I remember standing in the classroom before recess, talking with some classmates, asking them if they like this neat new R.E.M. band. I was immediately met with scorn, being informed that I couldn’t like R.E.M. – I had to like Poison and Motley Crue. I thought to myself “That’s not cool,” and later that summer I discovered The Cure and Elvis Costello and a beautiful future was beginning to unfold.

The peak of my fandom was definitely in the Monster days. I actually wasn’t that huge of a fan of that album at first, but I just couldn’t stop listening to the old stuff, collecting live bootlegs and assembling compilations of b-sides and fan club singles. That period was also the first (and only) time I saw them live.

I’m guessing part of it was because I was doing my best to be in a band then, and all of us were pretty inspired by music in general since we were starting to create it. I think that all this music I had loved to listen to was suddenly appreciable on a whole new level – as something that was crafted by people who had access to essentially the same tools I did. I loved it and respected it in a whole new way – everything from Michael Stipe’s lyrics to Peter Buck’s arpeggios to the way the melodies were often carried in Mike Mills’ basslines to Bill Berry’s eyebrows. It was like having 15 years worth of amazing music, brand new all over again.

One of the things I was most looking forward to about going to college was the fact that I’d be moving to a city with record shops, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi was coming out right after I’d move. I don’t think I’ve ever anticipated an album more. I bought the import single of “E-Bow the Letter” to hold me over another week, and finally, when it was time, I made my very first trip to a midnight release party. I took an extra long route back to the dorms to be able to listen to the whole album.

I loved analyzing the song styles, imagining that many of the songs represented an influence picked up from one of the varied opening bands they’d had on tour. “How the West Was Won…” must’ve been Grant Lee Buffalo…”Leave” was probably Luscious Jackson…”Be Mine” had to be Radiohead. “New Test Leper” was like an update of one of my favorites, “Try not to Breathe.” It went on and on and I loved that album and how exciting it felt to be able to soak it all in from the first day it was available.

This of course now segues to the part where it fell apart. I’m not sure what it was about Up that pushed me away so much. Maybe Bill Berry contributed more than anyone realized?

I remember an interview in which they said this was their most experimental album yet. As I had been listening to stuff like the Beta Band and Super Furry Animals, I was really curious as to what R.E.M. experimentation meant. Apparently, it meant “boring.” Most of the songs I heard were so boring that they were almost annoying.

I caught them on Jools Holland, and it just felt like I wasn’t watching R.E.M. I realize that’s a really over-used description in this series, but it’s a pretty powerful feeling to experience.

I believe they’ve since gone on to say that every new album is their most experimental album yet, almost as if they feel that’s some kind of validation; as if what made them special was their ability to take a genre so mundane and make it so beautiful. Wasn’t that part of their story – that they were outcasts in Athens because they refused to be “artsy”?

Not that any of that matters. No amount of psychoanalysis or second-guessing changes what ends up on the recording. If what hit my ears still did its job, none of it would matter. To me, listening to R.E.M., through all their changes, was this epitome of enjoying the musical experience. With Up, I just kind of felt sad.

I still think “Daysleeper” is pretty. I ended up buying all the singles from Up, but it was to get the live recordings of earlier songs on the b-sides. I’m not sure how many albums they’ve released since then. I can’t even be bothered to look it up.

It’s weird to think that the amount of time between now and when Up was released is the same time gap as between that release and when I first discovered R.E.M. in 1989. I’ve now spent as much time not caring about R.E.M. as I did enjoying it.

One thing that I feel I should add, though, is that I saw their performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and it was awesome. It brought a smile to my face.

One Response to “Top 5 Biggest Letdown Albums: #1”

  1. Matthew Hansen Says:

    I never realized that Up was the album that turned you off of REM. It was mine, too — I of course loved Monster and liked New Adventures in Hi-Fi even though it got panned by some critics I remember reading at the time.

    I seriously remember buying Up and thinking — that’s the last REM album I’ll ever buy. I think I broke that promise to myself but I honestly can’t even remember if I’ve listened to the newest one in my CD case.

Leave a Reply