Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Strummers for Life

About five years ago, the Feelies released their second album and R.E.M. released their fourth, which from a 1986 vantage seemed unfair. Things happened too slowly for the Feelies. It took a year and a half of sparsely populated gigs before John Piccarella dubbed them "The Best Underground Band in New York" in October 1978, and a year and a half of minor mythos before their hard-strummed forcebeats went vinyl on Stiff. But Crazy Rhythms stiffed, and a year and a half later the Feelies, never bent on fame in the first place, abjured subcultural renown to recombine as the Trypes and the Willies and Yung Wu, all of whom advanced the parent band's minimalism into areas of endeavor closely resembling total boredom. R.E.M., on the other hand, got together in 1980, scored a celebrated indie single before the end of 1981, and quickly signed to I.R.S. In 1982 the extravagant electro-pastoral of their Chronic Town EP topped Pazz & Jop; in 1983 their Murmur LP finished second to Thriller and reached an uncultlike 36 in Billboard. By decade's end Rolling Stone would dub them "America's Best Rock & Roll Band," and though they disown this absurd claim--no such animal, they keep reminding people--it hasn't done them a bit of harm. Like I said: unfair.

But I'm getting ahead of my story, because by the time of that cover line R.E.M. was no longer floundering skillfully around the existential swamp. Michael Stipe reckons the low point was 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction. "We were on very tenuous terms as a group and we were desperately trying to figure out what we were and where we were going," he said of album three by transatlantic phone last week. "It's an incredibly dark and very morose record." And I do prefer number four, the crisper and more explicit Lifes Rich Pageant. But by then no honest listener could claim such a discrimination wasn't a little willful. Semipop formalists on a 48-track to nowhere, R.E.M. were cutting it much too fine, and what wasn't fair was that their sophomoric faithful still swore every little thing they did was magic. Which is exactly how the Feelies' old faithful felt about the reformed band's second well-regarded stiff--the modestly electro-pastoral The Good Earth, produced for Coyote by none other than R.E.M. music man Peter Buck. Since the Feelies were '80s Velvets to R.E.M.'s '80s Byrds, Buck was accused of taking the city out of the boys--of refracting them into R.E.M. clones. But in fact the album's rippling quietude had precedents in such longtime Feelies influences as Brian Eno and Steve Reich, not to mention The Velvet Underground (not to mention the Trypes and the Willies and Yung Wu). If anything, it exposed R.E.M. as Feelies clones--another guitar band with a good beat submerging the words in the weave.

After all, who came first? Though Glenn Mercer was adamantly hookless where Peter Buck was liberally hooky, there was nothing hard about his sound, and though the Feelies deployed more guitars and more crazy rhythms, their raveups eschewed the bigtime power chord as incorruptibly as R.E.M.'s jangles did. The crucial difference, as I complained at the time, was corn quotient--the Feelies disguised the folk-rock romanticism that R.E.M. reveled in. Its textures thick with lyrical underbrush, its vocals soaring past drawl into the sonic haze, R.E.M. was the most luxuriantly Southern of the Athens bands; from their Passaic County fastness, the Feelies imbued nerdy suburban goofiness with spare downtown cool, rocking out all the while. And in 1986 there was no question which aesthetic was more suitable, more satisfying, more powerful. For me, anyway. In 1986. The Feelies'.

Having signed to Warners for a jillion dollars after securing the promise of a serious European push, R.E.M. have just dropped album number seven: Out of Time, which follows their 1989 label debut Green and their 1988 pop breakthrough Document. Although top-10 singles haven't improved their standing with the in crowd, they remain definitive college-radio idols. Meanwhile, after releasing one album in nine years, the Feelies have notched three more in five. Nudged by aficionado Jonathan Demme and some serious A&M distribution, 1988's Only Life--which I heard (perhaps willfully) as a loss of magic, one pastorale too many--marked their passage from avant-hobbyists into self-sustaining cult band. They toured so much behind it that they almost threw in the towel by the end. Instead they've generated Time for a Witness, a harder, louder, riffier, more humanistic expansion on their original conception. As Bill Million told me last week from his house in Jersey: "We felt like we were taking several giant steps backwards."

There's no knowing from here, but it's conceivable that both Out of Time and Time for a Witness will prove, to borrow the jargon for an athlete's peak year, career albums--career albums by aging young people who've figured out that for the foreseeable future these bands are their careers. I say that as a Murmur fan who thinks the in crowd was too dumb for Document, as a Crazy Rhythms fan who's crazier still for the CD remix with the "Paint It Black" bonus--and who believes that the new records realize the old, that (like Little Creatures, say, or Computer Games) they're the consummation of music that was everything each band had to say at the start but seems mere promise now. I'm not going to introduce the M-word here because in youthcult music it's a distraction. I'm just going to note that the sere sound of Crazy Rhythms, so untrue to the exhilaration of the Feelies' live shows, was always an irritation, as was Stipe's enunciation on Murmur, which smart alecks call Mumble to this day. People loved the records so much anyway that they rationalized these peculiarities into purist virtues, but at best they were distancing strategies, designed to fend off the still fearsome world outside. No more. Not only have these artists renewed their faith in their earliest instincts, they finally believe the world is ready to agree with them. And there's once again no question which aesthetic is more suitable, more satisfying, more powerful. For me. In perpetuity. R.E.M.'s.

This isn't to suggest that there's any such animal as America's best rock & roll band, or that the Feelies are getting away with shit the way R.E.M. were five years ago. Minimalism is invigorating stuff, especially when you power it up the way the Feelies do here. And though their sound has thickened nicely since the thrilling classicism of their long-ago holiday sets, the new album--which Million says consists mostly of live jams that materialized after the quasibreakup of late '89--provides a convincing living-room simulacrum of that well-remembered rush. Not counting the Velvets and the Ramones, neither of them ascetic enough to dispense with catchy, there's never been a smarter minimalist band. Which is why their career album serves as an exciting object lesson in what minimalism isn't always better for minimizing. Although they've digested a few sonic conventions, it is their pride and their uncorny prejudice that at their reborn best they continue to provide pretty much what John Piccarella described so indelibly a dozen years ago: "They are constant and hookless, leaving nothing to hum on the way home save the continual buzz of an overcharged nervous system. One recovers from their sets tingling with a head full of empty, like coming off too much speed, staring at the television long after the station has signed off." No mean feat, as one aesthetic experience among many. But if it's enough to build what Million calls "somewhat of a career" on, it's not enough to build your life on. Lives require corn.

And Out of Time has it--chewy, juicy, even tasty. Once immersed in mystery, the band has gotten positively preachy since 1986--since Stipe decided to spit out the marbles. Though some pop aesthetes, hiding political tics behind faux-formalist boilerplate, accuse them of imposing the contras and solidarity and Agent Orange on their musical material, I say such subjects signal a healthy other-directedness, just like Stipe's newfound elocution. So when "Radio Song" began Out of Time with "The world is collapsing around our ears" and then took out after top 40 (with guest rhetoric from KRS-One), I wondered briefly whether the gorgeous "Losing My Religion" was hinting that Stipe had lost faith in music itself. But that was before I listened hard.

Love Songs, they thought about calling it, but that would have been too much--the doomy/mystical ambiguity of the real title could placate the in crowd a little. But love songs is what it is. This being R.E.M., they mean to capture moods or limn relationships rather than describe feelings or, God knows, incidents. Stipe says they're "not autobiographical": "When I write about myself you'll know it." But R.E.M.'s agitprop, often written in the voice of an assumed everyman, doesn't open up emotionally this way. And while some will no doubt find the music too pleasing, it matches the words hurt for hurt and surge for surge. The Kate Pierson cameos ("Shiny Happy People" is so shiny and happy I can't believe it's sarcastic, so I tell myself it's a pre-AIDS memory), the cellos ("Low"!), and Mark Bingham's organic string arrangements may strike some folks as musical departures, but to me they sound like Murmur without walls. This is beauty worthy of DeBarge, of the sweetest soukous, of a massed choir singing "I Want To Know What Love Is"--I haven't heard anything so shameless in "rock" since great New Order or classic Crenshaw. And though in theory it's true that I would have preferred something that spoke more directly to how shitty I feel about Iraq, in fact this is one of those alternate worlds that music is supposed to create for us--one of those worlds that makes peace worth fighting for. If I hear a better American album all year, I promise to stop wondering what it would be like to live in New Zealand.

Village Voice, Mar. 26, 1991