Like Music Challenge Day 1, this can be a difficult, open-ended question. It’s tough to pick one favourite band. There are usually about half a dozen bands that I would fly to another city to see in concert. That seems like a pretty reliable yardstick for gauging who is in the running for my ‘favourite band’ on any given day. But sometimes one of my favourites is on ‘indefinite hiatus’ or, worse yet, permanently disbanded. So it’s not a 100% reliable test.
Bands also need to release several top-flight records, all while pushing the sonic envelope and carefully blurring the line between critical and commercial success, to earn my fandom. Despite record companies investing millions in pumping the sales of the latest Flavour of the Month, I’m convinced that some of the best bands manage to sell a lot of records just by making damn good records. What a novel concept!
So for today, it comes down to a coin flip between R.E.M. and Radiohead (flips coin). Okay, it’s officially R.E.M. The gods of binary logic have spoken.
My favourite R.E.M. song is “The Great Beyond”. It was released as a single in 2000. You can also find it on the Man On The Moon film soundtrack and the In Time greatest hits collection. Sure, I could have established my hipster credentials by picking a old song from one of the IRS-era albums. And I do love those albums, especially Murmur and Reckoning. I could have picked a song from the band’s mainstream heyday, somewhere between Document and Automatic For The People (also great records). I could have cherry-picked a song from one of the studio albums released over the last twenty years (contrary to popular opinion, each R.E.M. album has at least two or three standout tracks). But for me, it’s “The Great Beyond”.
I love the cinematic way in which this song unfolds. You can bask in the glory of Peter Buck’s buzzing, chiming guitars. There’s plenty of layers of interesting sounds, clicks, snippets of synthesizer and plucked harmonics contributing melodic and rhythmic elements to the melange. There’s a particularly strong vocal performance from Michael Stipe, and a surreal but funny lyric that evokes the spirit of Andy Kaufman while retaining Stipe’s signature stream-of-consciousness flow and meter. And at all the right points, strings and additional keyboards swell up into the mix. It sounds great on the sofa and even better through headphones. “The Great Beyond” seems like a true composition, without ever feeling over-composed. It must be almost impossible to hit this sweet spot, but on this single R.E.M. make it sound effortless.
I’m pushing an elephant up the stairs
I’m tossing up punch lines that were never there
Over my shoulder a piano falls, crashing to the ground
I’m breaking through, I’m bending spoons
I’m keeping flowers in full bloom
I’m looking for answers from the great beyond
I’m mostly glad that R.E.M. called it a day on their own terms, while they were still artistically relevant. But I’m also a little crestfallen that we won’t get to hear any more new songs from the guys that gave us “The Great Beyond”.