Saturday, November 11, 2006

Battle of the Oldies

I probably don't have to tell you where I stand on this debate. I've always liked U2 a great deal, and The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby would both make a list of my very favorite records. (See?) But even though U2 makes great big music, and plays much better to the arena-size audiences that both bands eventually attracted, I’ve always thought REM’s catalog is more varied and occasionally achieves a quiet beauty in which U2 just isn’t interested -- even beautiful U2 songs, like “One” and “With or Without You,” sound like they’re being played for 60,000 people. By contrast, REM’s “Half a World Away,” to take one of many examples, sounds like it could barely survive a crowd of more than three.

The four original members of REM used to claim they would break up if any one of them left, and it's easy to think they should’ve kept that promise. Since drummer Bill Berry's departure after New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the band has lost its punch, releasing some solid songs, but none of the cohesive albums it used to produce year after year (with the lone exception, in my mind, of Monster). Meanwhile, everyone crows about how “relevant” U2 has remained in recent years, but I don’t know. I’m a big fan, and haven’t outgrown rock music, but Bono and company seem to be relevant only as a brand to me, like Starbucks or Target. They pump out reasonable facsimiles of their old hits, but I haven’t felt the need to buy a record of theirs this century. In other words, both bands, two of the greatest ever, are no longer clean-up hitters. Which is fine -- rock is a young person’s game. But if I had to choose, from 1983 to 1992, I’d take REM’s output, in a heartbeat.

Wait, that period ended fourteen years ago. That’s how many generations in popular music? Seven? Eight? Sweet, sweet lord, I’m old.


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