Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Chronic Town [I.R.S. EP, 1982] A-
  • Murmur [I.R.S., 1983] A-
  • Reckoning [I.R.S., 1984] B+
  • Fables of the Reconstruction [I.R.S., 1985] B+
  • Lifes Rich Pageant [I.R.S., 1986] B+
  • Dead Letter Office [I.R.S., 1987] C+
  • Document [I.R.S., 1987] A
  • Eponymous [I.R.S., 1988] A-
  • Green [Warner Bros., 1988] B+
  • Out of Time [Warner Bros., 1991] A
  • Automatic for the People [Warner Bros., 1992] ***
  • Monster [Warner Bros., 1994] A-
  • New Adventures in Hi-Fi [Warner Bros., 1996] A-
  • Up [Warner Bros., 1998] Neither
  • Reveal [Warner Bros., 2001] B-
  • Around the Sun [Warner Bros., 2004] **
  • Accelerate [Warner Bros., 2008] Choice Cuts

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Chronic Town [I.R.S. EP, 1982]
This headlong tumble proves them the wittiest and most joyful of the postgarage sound-over-sense bands, probably because they make so little sense that their sound has to be articulate indeed. Physically incomprehensible lyrics make them harder to parse than somebody else's mystical experience, but every so often a chaotic undertow suggests there's more to their romanticism than Spanish moss. A-

Murmur [I.R.S., 1983]
They aren't a pop band or even an art-pop band--they're an art band, nothing less or more, and a damn smart one. If they weren't so smart they wouldn't be so emotional; in fact, if they weren't so smart no one would mistake them for a pop band. By obscuring their lyrics so artfully they insist that their ("pop") music is good for meaning as well as pleasure, but I guarantee that when they start enunciating--an almost inevitable move if they stick around--the lyrics will still be obscure. That's because their meaning and their emotion almost certainly describe the waking dream that captivates so many art and pop bands. Which leaves me wondering just how much their pleasure means. Quite a lot, I think. A-

Reckoning [I.R.S., 1984]
This charming band makes honestly reassuring music--those guitar chords ring out with a confidence in the underlying beauty of the world that's all but disappeared among rock-and-rollers who know what else is happening. As befits good Southerners, their sense of necessity resides in their drummer, which is why the Byrds analogies don't wash (who ever noticed Michael Clarke?) and why they shouldn't get carried away with the country moves (slow ones really are supposed to have words). B+

Fables of the Reconstruction [I.R.S., 1985]
If you had any doubts, new producer Joe Boyd clinches it: their formal frame of reference is folk-rock, nothing less, and nothing more. Because they're Southerners, they've always defeated folk-rock's crippling stasis: they have a good beat, and you can boogie to them. But as formalists they valorize the past by definition, and if their latest title means anything it's that they're slipping inexorably into the vague comforts of regret, mythos, and nostalgia. Trading energy for ever richer textures, their impressionism sacrifices its paradoxical edginess: it's doleful, slower, solidly grounded but harder to boogie to nevertheless. B+

Lifes Rich Pageant [I.R.S., 1986]
Musically, this talented minor band's fastest-breaking album represents no significant departure from the past, though just how many recapitulations of their lyricism one needs is clearly beginning to trouble those who took it too seriously in the first place. The players still make them and the singer-lyricist still refuses to define them, and while his projection has improved, it's hardly crystalline and wouldn't tell you anything you didn't know if it was. I mean, this is music for mushheads, and that it retains an undeniable if rather abstract charm only proves that there's a little mushhead in all of us. I give album four the nod over number three for its compelling snare sound and dynamic cover version. And insist that any normal person can make do with number one, when all this was a tad more spontaneous. B+

Dead Letter Office [I.R.S., 1987]
Peter Buck describes these B sides and outtakes as "a junkshop." Dumpster would be more like it. You can throw away a Velvets cover or three without anybody getting hurt, but bad Pylon gives unsuspecting young people the wrong idea. C+

Document [I.R.S., 1987]
Their commercial breakthrough eschews escapism without surrendering structural obliqueness, and after six years of mushmouth I wouldn't have thought it possible either. Maybe they finally figured out that intelligibility doesn't equal closure (can't, actually). Or maybe they just wanted to make sure everyone knew how pissed off they were. In any case, these dreamsongs are nightmares of a world in flames, the kind you remember in all their scary inconsistency because you woke up sweating in the middle. How it will all end I couldn't say, but it's a healthy sign that their discovery of the outside world has sharpened their sense of humor along with everything else. Inspirational Title: "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." A

Eponymous [I.R.S., 1988]
Though the cruder original "Radio Free Europe" and clearer original "Gardening at Night" obscure the evolution slightly, you can hear them change. At first, with Peter Buck pouring out cunning hooks and sweet rondels, Bill Berry locomotivating past any hint of wimp, Mike Mills forthrightly tuneful, and Michael Stipe moaning and mumbling and emoting as if he knows exactly what he's singing about, rock and roll is all they need--it's poetry, it's energy, its beauty, it's meaning enow. Yet only as they decide that maybe rock and roll isn't enough after all does their music embrace the brains and muscle of the real thing. Divided into "early" and "late" sides that acknowledge this dichotomy, with a train song from their fuzziest regular-release album kicking off side two, this compilation does nicely by the lyricism and depends too heavily on Document for the rock and roll, but their longstanding avant-singles commitment justifies the package. A-

Green [Warner Bros., 1988]
The "air" side combines the bite of their realest rock and roll with the shameless beauty their cult once lived for--it's funny and/or serious and/or rousing and/or elegiac right up to "The Wrong Child," a title that speaks for itself and heralds the shit to follow. Which they dub the "metal" side, with heavy tempos and dubious poetry that make good on their intermittent moments only during the funny, serious, elegiac "I Remember California." B+

Out of Time [Warner Bros., 1991]
Hiding political tics behind faux-formalist boilerplate, pop aesthetes accused them of imposing Solidarity and Agent Orange on their musical material, but in fact such subjects signaled an other-directedness as healthy as Michael Stipe's newfound elocution. Admittedly, with this one beginning "The world is collapsing around our ears," I wondered briefly whether "Losing My Religion" was about music itself, but when Stipe says they thought about calling it Love Songs, he's not just mumbling "Dixie." Being R.E.M., they mean to capture moods or limn relationships rather than describe feelings or, God knows, incidents, and while some will find the music too pleasing, it matches the words hurt for hurt and surge for surge. The Kate Pierson cameos, the cellos, and Mark Bingham's organic string arrangements are Murmur without walls--beauty worthy of DeBarge, of the sweetest soukous, of a massed choir singing "I Want To Know What Love Is." A

Automatic for the People [Warner Bros., 1992]
eternal sleep ("Man on the Moon," "Nightswimming") ***

Monster [Warner Bros., 1994]
Sick of dummies claiming they can't rock, the old Zepheads deliver the first power-riff album of their highly lyrical career. Peter Buck's sonic palette is rainbow grunge--variegated dirt and distortion as casual rhetoric--and he's so cranked even the slow ones seem born to be loud. As for Mr. Stipe, he's in the band, where he belongs. Message: guitars. Which after years of politics and sensitivity is well-timed. A-

New Adventures in Hi-Fi [Warner Bros., 1996]
Two years of road adventures, such as they were, that fuse spontaneity and arena scale. At sound checks and ad hoc local studios, Michael Stipe preaches and exhorts more than he rambles or muses, Mike Mills spelunks with keybs, and Peter Buck pumps the folk-rock jangle that broadened Amerindie's first wave. Nothing epochal, and there's poetry in that--the poetry of a nominal community that has learned how to keep its dreams modest and enjoy them that way. But for all the reliable melodies, momenta, and FX--love the siren on "Leave," guys--there's also routine in it. A-

Up [Warner Bros., 1998] Neither

Reveal [Warner Bros., 2001]
Not as bad as it first sounds, but also not as good as they thought when they released it, or they wouldn't have, I hope. Suffused with somnolent tempos and pensive arrangements, the romantic trials and spiritual quests of struggling rock and rollers can be pretty hard to take, so why should we care about the ditto of wealthy movie producers with a record contract to fulfill and 21 individually acknowledged string players on call? Even a movie producer who knows the names of Japanese carp and French emotions that he'll happily print out in the booklet now that he's e-nun-ci-a-ting ev-ry sing-gle word? B-

Around the Sun [Warner Bros., 2004]
At last the pop album nostalgics are always bitching about, and it's an improvement ("Around the Sun," "Leaving New York"). **

Accelerate [Warner Bros., 2008]
"Houston" Choice Cuts

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