The previous decade had seen R.E.M. rise to previously unfathomable heights before tailing off. While ‘Up’ signalled a downturn in R.E.M.’s commercial fortunes, hopes were still high among fans for the band’s 12th album ‘Reveal’, released late Spring 2001. Preceding it by a few weeks was its lead single:-
mp3: R.E.M. – Imitation Of Life
For some fans who were still tuning in, Imitation Of Life was reassuringly familiar. But I had a big problem with the song when I first heard it, and I still do 20 years on. The fact it sounds like it could have fitted on Automatic For The People may have had something to do with it. R.E.M. was never a band who looked back, only forwards, but his song felt a bit like a Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite moment, and you know how I feel about that one!
Of course, R.E.M. being the environmentalists they were, loved to recycle, but this is basically a (badly) rehashed Driver 8 – same chords, same tempo. It’s almost as if they deliberately set about to write a template R.E.M. song, which was NEVER something they’d ever strived for previously.
On first listen though, it wasn’t even the fact it sounded so derivative. To me, Imitation Of Life sounds like two totally different songs they couldn’t finish, so they welded the verse of one to the chorus of the other and Hey Presto! Instant hit! That last, elongated syllable in the verse kind of gives it away to me. “Hold it there Michael, we just need to find a way to link the two bits together…”
Talking of Stipe, this really has one of the most annoying lyrics you’ll ever hear from him. Again, it sounds like Stipe is actually trying to write lyrics that only Michael Stipe would write. They sound like a parody, especially the excruciating line: “You want the greatest thing / The greatest thing since bread came sliced.” All of a sudden, Stand sounds somewhat existentialist.
And then… just as you get to grips with the fact that this really isn’t one of R.E.M.’s greatest works, you have to contend with the mix. It’s just so sludgy and crammed so full of stuff, you can barely breathe. Acoustic guitars, electric guitars, keyboards, electronic gadgetry, strings… all of it thrown in without measure and stirred until it resembles something you’d repair a road with. So even if there was a half-decent song to be made out of Imitation Of Life, the mix pretty much killed it stone dead.
No surprise then that it became another big hit – the band’s 9th top ten smash – reaching #6 in the last April chart of 2001. There were three formats – the CD single contained alternative versions of songs that would appear on the new album. Despite the a-side, I had quite high hopes for Reveal on hearing the ‘original version’ of The Lifting (a prequel to Daysleeper, apparently). It struck me as being far superior to Imitation of Life, so I hoped it was more representative of the album as a whole. Sadly, the album version was appalling – another shockingly bad mix and sped up. This is definitely the version you want/need.
mp3: R.E.M. – The Lifting [original version]
Also on the CD was a demo of Beat A Drum. This version is also less cluttered than its album take, and sounds more sombre and sad. To be honest, this is the first time in years I’ve listened to either version and I’m no more taken with them now as I was when I first heard them, but if I had to pick between them, needless to say this demo version wins out.
mp3: R.E.M. – Beat A Drum [Dalkey demo]
In what I believe was a first for R.E.M., a DVD single was also released. Now there’s a format we all wanted and needed, said absolutely no one ever. Alongside the quite brilliant Imitation Of Life video (a single 20-second shot playing backwards and forwards repeatedly, zooming in on different characters throughout) and the audio of The Lifting, it also contained an unreleased studio track called 2JN.
Yep, you’ve guessed it, it’s one of those silly instrumental oddities they insisted on foisting upon us. 2JN also appeared on the third format released in the UK, the dreaded cassette single.
mp3: R.E.M. – 2JN
In spite of my dislike of the lead single, I went into Reveal hopeful and open-minded. I bought it on the day of its release and played it that evening. When it finished, I said: “Well. That was shit!”
MrsRobster gasped. I was angry. I felt completely let down by the band that had meant so much to me for nearly 14 years. I’d stood by them, defended them, godammit, I still LOVED them even when things were getting tough. But that was the moment I knew I needed a break; I needed someone other than R.E.M. in my life. The spark was no longer there. We’d drifted apart – but it wasn’t me, it was them. And it was around that time that an exciting, young, good-looking duo from Detroit made eyes at me in a local record shop…
A few weeks later, I heard the strains of Imitation Of Life coming at me through my TV. No, it wasn’t a music show, it was an ad break, and Paul Gambaccini was telling me that R.E.M.’s new album Reveal was a “stunning return to form.” And that merely confirmed it for me – if Paul Gambaccini does an ad telling me something is “stunning”, I’ll most definitely pass, thank you very much!
PS : For those who haven’t seen the promo :-
7 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Part 37)”
Fascinating piece, Robster. I wasn’t sold on the song or the video, for that matter, and that hasn’t changed in twenty years. I hadn’t made the Driver 8 connection before, but it’s so obvious once you point it out. I also agree with the two-song-weld theory. It can sometimes work – I love Moving by Supergrass – but this is perhaps symptomatic of the wider problems R.E.M. were experiencing in taking things forward. And I find the “bread came sliced” couplet so irritating, it may subconsciously be a key reason why Imitation Of Life rarely makes my playlists…
Another incomprehensible fact is that all three of today’s B-sides made it to the bonus rarities disc on the In Time compilation in 2003. That’s 20% of the entire selection. The Lifting I absolutely agree with, Beat A Drum at a push, but 2JN? Come on!
Totally agree with The Robster and Khayem. It was the last REM album I bought when it came out and one I haven’t played for years. I can’t get angry with REM for too long though – they were pretty consistent for over 20 years and TBH I could do with a new REM style band to take their place……
I didn’t hate the single but I agree with you on the mix. The album was such an astonishing disappointment. Truly dreadful
Lone voice of dissent – I like it . It’s throwaway as all pop should be . Is it the best thing they’ve done , not in a million years . It’s a bit harsh I think to criticise a song as fitting in on a previous lp . It’s a pop song made for radio.
I agree with Friend of Rachel Worth. I love Imitation of Life. In fact it’s one of my favourite REM singles.
Maybe we should have seen it coming with “The Great Beyond”. A band that on “Up” seemed to be open to exploring new avenues, disappearing into the past. Although my response to “Reveal” (and “Imitation of Life” wasn’t as extreme as TheRobster appears to have been, it was certainly a point in time. REM were irrelevant. It had been coming but there had always been reasons to love them. Now…
To paraphrase Billy Bragg – “I kept the faith and I kept buying. Not for the current sounds, but for the songs before”.
The next few weeks of listening could be tough, but I’m sure the excellent writing of our guides will see us through to the other side!
Cracking post from The Robster, even if I do think it’s a little
harsh on Imitation of Life. I suppose chart-wise it did its job as
a lead-in single, helped maybe by a very friendly chorus.
I bought Reveal from a charity shop late last year – need to give
it a proper spin, but remember loving Beat a Drum, so will be
interested to hear this alternative take.
Thanks for a terrific read, as ever.