I’ve read that, like Star Wars vs. Star Trek fans, you can never love both R.E.M. and U2; it’s either one or the other. But it’s just not true. I do love both of them. And at one time or another, I’ve hated both of them.
U2 was one of my first true loves. I discovered them in 1984 in the middle of the second British invasion, when my attention was drawn more toward Thompson Twins, Kajagoogoo and Wham! (Yes, I said Wham!). The Unforgettable Fire was a perfect introduction to the group, even though it was an atypical album for them. Their previous releases had been passionate, even angry; The Unforgettable Fire was both soothing and stormy. Laden with keyboards and synthesizers, it was dreamy, not unlike producer Brian Eno’s ambient works.
But it was their signature hit, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” that caught my attention. With the Edge’s guitar chiming away, I discovered that Bono was singing about something important. This was different from songs about Mickey and New Moons on Monday and Karma Chameleon. And as I discovered their back catalog, I heard their more political songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (Gasp! They had a whole album entitled War!).
The Joshua Tree
As the buildup to The Joshua Tree grew, so did my anticipation. I was on a choir tour during spring break when it was released in 1987, and I persuaded the bus driver to stop at a mall in Macon, Ga., so I could buy it. And now as I look back, I can safely say that The Joshua Tree is the only follow-up album that has surpassed my expectations.
I played it constantly – so much that the cassette wore out and I had to buy another. I felt a rush of emotion as Larry Mullen beat the drums with a frenzy, opening the album and the first cut, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I felt like crying every time I heard “With or Without You”, its slow beginning building until a sudden release of emotion by Bono, met just as intensely by the Edge’s echoing guitar and Mullen’s tom-toms that mimicked the beating of a heart. And I felt at peace with the strings accompanying “Mothers of the Disappeared,” the song that ended the album.
These guys could do no wrong. I loved them, I went to their concerts with a religious fervor, I readied myself in 1991 for the follow-up, which would vault them into the rock stratosphere.
Achtung Baby was the biggest disappointment of any follow-up I’ve ever heard.
The album has received great reviews, ranking right alongside The Joshua Tree as their masterpieces. But that new creative spurt meant exploring new sounds: European, techno, and electronic music. Distorted vocals, guitars and synthesizers were the norm, and their singles (e.g., “Mysterious Ways”) sounded too polished. In my view, U2 had sold out.
When their next two albums came out, I ignored them – especially Pop, in which they looked and sounded like Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Bono grew cocky, calling the White House and ordering pizzas during concerts, strutting around on stages adorned with giant lemons and the golden arches of McDonald’s, and sporting the now trademark wraparound sunglasses.
During most of the 90s, I was estranged from the group. They have since redeemed themselves partly with their last two releases, which have seen them get back to their roots. But still, in the back of my mind, I remember their experimentation. I have forgiven, but not forgotten.
R.E.M was a wild strange group when I first heard about them in 1986, (I grew up on north Georgia, where there was no access to college radio) but when I started listening to Lifes Rich Pageant, I found that they were relatively harmless. Little did I know then that LRP was about as hard-edged as the band would get; their back catalogue was surprisingly tame.
Over the next few years, I waited for the masterpiece that never came, but I was never disappointed, and each album was a new twist in genre and sound: The political overtones of Document, the pop sensibilities of Green (my favorite), the mandolin-laced Out of Time and the dark but accessible Automatic for the People. So when Monster was released in 1994, promising a return to the hard edge of Lifes Rich Pageant, I was excited.
‘Monster’ – a disappointment
Disappointment #1. Monster sacrificed melody for feedback and fuzzy guitars; it seemed as if Stipe and Co. were trying to reach out to Nirvana and Pearl Jam fans. It quickly became my least favorite R.E.M. album, soon replaced by the rough, hastily assembled New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and then replaced by the minimalist, electronic (!) Up, and then Reveal and Around the Sun. I can’t tell you anything about those two, they were so nondescript.
The loss of Bill Berry after New Adventures (he retired to his farm in Watkinsville, Ga.) seemed to be a huge blow, for they never really found their sound, or maybe even their identity. Sadly, R.E.M was no longer relevant. Like U2, they have begun to redeem themselves with this year’s Accelerate, but after five duds in a row, it’s a big hole to climb out from.
So who’s better in the R.E.M. vs. U2 battle?
I guess I can say that my fervor for U2 was greater and more intense, but after Achtung Baby, I felt cheated, and U2’s fall from the pedestal was a long way down. R.E.M., on the other hand, has always seemed like a casual acquaintance, not letting you close enough so that you really know them. I liked most of their songs; I loved very few, and only one (“At My Most Beautiful,” the only jewel from Up) would make my Top 20 songs of all time. (That’s just a guess; I’m still formulating that list in my head.) Likewise, they’ve never had a truly masterpiece of an album, but until the 90s, all of them were great. My heart belonged to U2, my head R.E.M.
There. After 3,000 words of introspection, I feel better, at least.