R.E.M.: “Live at the Olympia”

rem olympia

At the start of R.E.M.’s epic-length new live album, Michael Stipe quietly intones that “this is not a show.” In the same way, let me say from the beginning that this is not a review: This is, rather, an opportunity for reflection on a band that I have long loved, and a conjecture on where they can possibly go next as they stare down their third decade as a rock and roll institution.

Though Live at the Olympia is culled from a series of “live rehearsals” of the then-unreleased Accelerate material, the set is nothing if not a gift to long-time fans who think the band peaked during their IRS years and have been going downhill ever since “Losing My Religion,” if not Green. For these shows– and the resulting 39-song, two-disc LP– Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck reached deep into the archives for a selection that studiously avoids any of the greatest hits– “Drive” might be the closest thing to an R.E.M. warhorse here– in favor of obscurities and songs that have received little attention since the early 1980s. The set is heavy on Chronic Town and Reckoning, in particular, and also includes gems from Murmur, Life’s Rich Pageant, and Fables of the Reconstruction. Meanwhile, the band’s Warner Bros albums are represented fairly sparingly, and not with the songs you might expect– Monster is present via the rarely-heard “Circus Envy,” for instance. And then, of course, there are a number of tunes from Accelerate, including a couple that didn’t make it on to the proper album. Everything here is played in a lean, muscular rock and roll style– the mystery of Murmur and the raggedness of Reckoning aren’t replicated, but, rather, everything is played with an inspired fervor reminiscent of Document or Life’s Rich Pageant— and the Accelerate songs are given equal footing with those time-worn classics. This means that, though it may be heavy on Accelerate, this new live set is anything but an extended infomercial for the group’s latest album: It feels more like a celebration of the band’s foundation, and to the return-to-roots attitude that made Accelerate a winsome, if minor, record.

The thing is, I’m not one of those fans who think the band’s been sliding downhill ever since those IRS albums became instant, underground classics. I admit that there was an effortlessness to those early LPs that the band has never duplicated, and Life’s Rich Pageant remains my favorite of their records, but what makes R.E.M. a truly great band, in a class above peers like Dinosaur Jr., is their restlessness, their refusal to keep making the same record over and over again. Like U2, they’re a band that insists on pushing their art ahead with everything they do, and, as such, I hold their 90s catalog to be inspiringly forward-thinking. They could have kept making the same careening jangle-pop over and over, but instead they pushed themselves with the experimental pop of Out of Time, the dark-hued folk of Automatic for the People, the raunchy buzz of Monster, the road-weary rock of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and yes, even their more studied post-Berry albums.

I loved that R.E.M. kept pushing themselves with these albums, even though not all of them were necessarily great. They didn’t break my heart, however, until the stale, utterly lifeless Around the Sun released in 2004, and made me wonder if the band had finally outlived their artfulness.

And so I had slightly mixed feelings about Accelerate, a fine and addicting album though it may be; for me, it represents both the hope for what R.E.M. can still be, but also anxiety over what they might become. Because as inspiring as it is to hear them reconnect with the rock and roll itch that made them great to begin with, the prospect of the band forsaking their adventurousness and becoming a mere greatest hits band, peddling nostalgia rather than boldness, is almost as terrifying a prospect as another album as limp as Around the Sun.

Backward-glancing though it may be, however, Live at the Olympia is an album that makes me optimistic for the future of R.E.M. And ironically enough, what really pleases me about it are the pair of songs pulled from Reveal and Around the Sun. On record, these songs were two studious to ever be thrilling; here, though, they’re boldly re-imagined as rock and roll songs, and, astonishingly, they sound great, using the band’s past strengths as a foundation for pushing these songs forward. It suggests that, though the band may have gotten lost in their studio, they never lost their capacity to write winning songs. Live at the Olympia is filled with great songs, old and new, that remind me of how great this band has always been– and how great they can still be as they push forward, holding to their roots but also looking to the future.

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