Old Dogs, New Tricks?

Longevity in the music business is often eyed with suspicion, and particularly for bands still seeking to create new material, rather than reforming or touring extensive back catalogues, relying on familiarity and muscle memory to get you through. Some, of course, do this exceptionally well. The Rolling Stones’ material may be old, but their abilities as a live band, coupled with a still burning passion for the spectacular makes for events (you might hesitate to say “concerts” and still further “gigs”) that justify the steep ticket prices. But what happens when approaching your late 40s and early 50s, you still yearn to let the creative juices flow?

This was brought to mind listening, as I always do, to the Guardian’s Music weekly Podcast. As part of Singles Club, one of the presenters proffered Überlin, the first European single (though it’s getting difficult to keep track of what’s a single and what’s a pre-release taster of what’s to come) of their upcoming Collapse Into Now album.

Now, I’m a confirmed REM apologist, able to find saving graces even in albums as mundane and lacklustre As Around the Sun, and as shiny and forced as Reveal, but hopes were relatively high following what some called the return to form, but for me was more a return of energy, that was 2007’s Accelerate. Misgivings about Jacknife Lee aside, I have listened to the various releases, with the fervid interest of a fan.

Having heard about a third of the album, I’ll reserve judgement – REM for me are an albums band, and the key is how things hold together across the piece. They are, in some ways, not entirely for the iPod generation and the songs released as singles are often the least of the material put down: Wanderlust, Until The Day Is Done, or going back Superman, to name a few. But something did stick from the Podcaster’s generally feelings of “meh”.

To summarise, the general lack of enthusiasm was put down to Überlin sounding a bit like Drive (I can see that from the opening “Hey”) or Losing My Religion (not quite so clear on that – there are minor chords and acoustic guitars, but…). And okay, that’s personal taste and the opinions, whilst ones I don’t necessarily agree with, are perfectly valid. However, I find the judgement of a song by others within a back catalogue in review of fairly little value. Surely the key is: is the song any good?

I’ll give you a for example…

A few weeks back, the same Podcast reviewed January Hymn by the Decemberists. A beautiful song; and a strong album in The King Is Dead. The panel agreed, and pointed particularly to the strong REM influence (Peter Buck plays on three songs, in case you hadn’t heard), particularly on Down By The Water, with it’s One I Love Rickenbacker riffing and in Calamity Song’s Reckoning era twelve strong. It’s good stuff, and as one presenter noted the strong REM influence, Alex Petrides, ever wise in his criticism and champion of really interesting stuff from the mainstream to the margins, added “that’s no bad thing”.

Right or wrong in critical opinion, the question that prompts is: what if REM had made The King Is Dead? Would the extensive quoting of their earlier work (as with the Drive-ishness of Überlin), lead to a sense of “meh”? I think it might.

We all load our preconceptions onto the music that we experience, especially when we have invested in a band and lived with them for so many years. Bob Boilen on NPR’s All Songs Considered, discussing Oh My Heart from Collapse Into Now, said “here’s a band you root for.” In many ways, I cling to the hope that the album will be good.

Perhaps the issue for Collapse Into Now is that it delves back to a later period REM than The King Is Dead. Automatic for the People, Out Of Time, perhaps hints of Monster and New Adventures in HiFi, rather than the critical gold of Murmur, Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant; a time of great commercial success, but which many hardcore fans seem to see as a sort of chamber pop, MTV-led era of less value than the band’s touring heyday. Well, each to their own.

Automatic was the album that got me into REM, sitting on my first girlfriend’s floor, with her resting her head on my chest while we listened to her brand new copy on cassette. But it’s one I seldom listen to now. In some ways the singles spoil it for me a touch: Everybody Hurts is lovely, but hardly rocket science and done to death, Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight one of the silly, pop-rock songs that are great driving along, but a little saccharine lost in your thoughts on the commute to work. As a result, lovely fragments such as Monty Got a Raw Deal miss out. The REM album that I’ve been listening to most regularly is Live At Olympia, which invests old material with real energy and a sense of ramshackle fun.

So maybe when Collapse Into Now comes out, I’ll be one of those pining for a little more Fables and a little less Out of Time. But, I’ve made a pact with myself to try, as far as is human, to judge the new album on its merits. If I pretend it’s by a new band called MER then maybe I won’t think it’s so MEH after all.