R.E.M. – Live at the Olympia in Dublin: 39 Songs

January 01, 1970

(Warner Bros.)

 

www.warnerbros.com

 

R.E.M. have been doing a lot of self-reckoning lately. In
the past few years, they have released one studio album of new material, along
with their first-ever live album, a 2xCD greatest hits, and reissues of their
first two albums packaged with contemporaneous live shows. It’s been a pretty
hectic, almost desperate argument for their continued relevance after a string
of misguided attempts to expand and redefine their sound. As a new generation
asks why they should care about a band that hasn’t been on top of their game in
a dozen years, R.E.M. have countered with a pretty constant flow of catalog
releases. Granted, Murmur and “So.
Central Rain” don’t get old, and Accelerate was actually really good, so who’s to complain (too much) if the band want to
move forward while looking backwards?

 

Even with the most beneficial of doubts, their new Live at the Olympia in Dublin: 39 Songs seems
a bit suspect. Like Live in 2007,
it’s a double-live album, recorded in Ireland. Any casual record buyer would be
forgiven for getting the two releases confused and asking, Why other? But
there’s a major difference here: Live, for
all it’s first-ever-R.E.M.-live-album headline grabbing, focused almost
exclusively on their most recent (read: post-Bill Berry) albums, career nadir Around the Sun in particular, cramming
the setlist with also-ran hits and never-were favorites. It was as
disappointing as anything they’ve released this decade.

 

Live at the Olympia,
on the other hand, has a recognizable retrospective flavor to it, with the band
mixing in really old songs with really new ones: Chronic Town with Accelerate,
Reckoning with New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and so on. Billed as “This Is Not a Show,”
the run of nights at the Olympia were meant to live-test songs for Accelerate and revive old numbers with
little rehearsal, this release isn’t simply a legacy-shaping ploy or a
fan-soliciting gesture, but it sounds like they are engaging anew with their
own history and, by extension, with themselves, which is refreshing after the
quartet-minus-one (like U2) swore off their old material sometime during the
1990s, before their new material went belly up. So this is three middle-aged
men trying to figure out how the hell they got here, and their only clues are
buried deep in “These Days” and “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars).”

 

What’s surprising about Live
at the Olympia
is how good these very different songs sound together, how
dynamically they compliment one another by emphasizing the nuance and
intelligence—both musical and lyrical—from each stage and album of their
career. Following opener “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” “Second Guessing”
sounds like it could have come from last year’s Accelerate instead of 1984’s Reckoning.
Likewise, “Houston,” “Cuyahoga,” and “Electrolite” comprise a cross-continental
travelogue despite more than the decade between each song. Recent songs like
“Man-Sized Wreath” and “Disguised” (better known as “Supernatural
Superserious”) are shown to have new mystery, while old songs like “Wolves,
Lower” and “Sitting Still” are laud naked and plain.

 

To their credit, R.E.M. do and do not make it look easy,
summoning more energy and charisma than they did on Live. But between songs, Stipe makes it clear that they’re flying
by the seat of their collective pants, joking about his lyrics sheets (he
apparently had to Google his own lyrics, which is a charming testament to the
unlikely, unwieldy immensity of their catalog) and introducing songs like
“Circus Envy” by telling the audience that it hasn’t been performed in a dozen
years. “This one’s easy,” he says by way of introducing “So. Central Rain,” but
when the audience cheers, he settles them back down: “Don’t get ahead of
yourselves.” He laughs off a flub on a strictly 55-mph version of “Drive,” and
says “Kohoutek” “is absolutely terrifying for us.” There’s a candor here that’s
refreshing, as if they’ve lowered their sights a bit, no longer trying to be
the Best Band in the World (a ‘90s concept rendered obsolete by the Internet)
but seemingly content to be the Best Band at the Olympia. Perhaps this double album is a
signal that R.E.M. is ready to be a cult band again. These guys might just have
a future after all.

 

Standout Tracks: “Kohoutek,” “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” “West of the Fields,”
“Cuoyahoga” STEPHEN M. DEUSNER

 

 

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