There’s always been a strange comfort in Michael Stipe’s grizzled, slightly nasal voice. Though I’ve never counted R.E.M. among my favorite bands, he’s managed to permanently lodge himself in some part of my brain.
He’s so familiar to me; I can always recognize R.E.M. no matter how fast I scan the radio dial. I remember the first time I saw the music video for “Everybody Hurts” on MTV. I remember wondering if Stipe’s manic arm flails in “Losing My Religion” could be categorized as dancing. I remember jumping around my childhood bedroom to “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and I remember when you could describe the group’s sound as “alternative” and actually mean it. R.E.M.’s early career was a little before my time—the band has been around longer than I’ve been alive—and as a consequence I experienced their albums out of order. I still think it’s weird that Michael Stipe used to have hair.
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That’s a testament to R.E.M.’s staying power. The group, which started in 1980 in Athens, Ga., was a commanding force in music for two solid decades and a venerable, though slightly diminished act in the third. Their fan base spans generations and their 15 studio albums have produced so many hit songs that it’s just too tiring to name them all. So when I heard the news that R.E.M. was “calling it a day,” as the band wrote on its website on Sept. 21, I was shocked. For some reason, I’d never even considered that R.E.M. could cease to exist.
Luckily, the show’s not over yet. R.E.M. just released its final single. “We All Go Back to Where We Belong.” It will appear on the compilation album Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage (out Nov. 15) and is a somber reflection on the end of a life-changing experience. “Is this really what you want?” Stipe asks over and over again in the chorus. He never receives an answer. In any other context, I would assume he had written a song about a failed romance. Actually, maybe he has.
Musically and contextually, “We All Go Back,” reminds me of R.E.M.’s 1992 classic “Man on the Moon.” Both songs have similar rhythms and quietly strumming guitars. They also contain messages for or about something that’s gone—in one it’s the late Andy Kaufman, in another its the band itself. “Man on the Moon” has always been one of my favorite R.E.M. songs. It’s not quite as wallowing as “Everybody Hurts” but it will still sneak up on you and make you sad. And now, “We All Go Back Where We Belong” will do that too—only this time, for a different reason.
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