By Peter Blackstock
That it was R.E.M.'s time to say goodbye came as no surprise. Thirty years in, eleven years beyond the timeline they'd once vowed to follow, a tenure without Bill Berry approaching the tenure they'd had with him: It was time, if not past time. There had been reasons to keep going, for better and for worse, but the end was always near. And so it was here. We knew, understood, accepted.
As it happens, there was a farewell note left on the mantle. It's called "We All Go Back To Where We Belong", and I find myself drawn to it much more than I'd imagined was possible, at this late date in a lifetime relationship with a band long taken for granted. As the title suggests, it harkens back to the beginning, a reminder of why such alchemy had first coalesced, of where it all flowed from. Which is not to say it's retro: R.E.M. circa Chronic Town would not have been capable of this particular shade of accumulated beauty. The unapologetic gracefulness, the sympathetic twinges of strings and horns, the clarity of message and purpose....these are the full blooms from wisdom gained along the way.
But the artistic impulse, the underlying current of emotion -- that carries over, and connects 1980 to 2011. Then, as now, the pull of a melody divines the direction. It's the feel of the sound that determines the words. And so "I could live a million years" bridges over three decades into "I will write our story in my mind."
The poetry always mattered, even when the words were elusive. They became clearer over time; that clarity sharpens to its finest point in this final address. "This might be my innocence lost." "I can taste the ocean on your skin." "I woke up thinking we were free."
And the answer to the end of this band, fittingly, comes in the form of a question: "Is this really what you want?"
We all, ultimately, must ask this of ourselves. Where we proceed from that reckoning is up to us. And yet, the nature of the past exerts its power over the future: "We all go back to where we belong." This is not as reactionary as it sounds. "Things don't change, they never have," a contemporary of R.E.M. used to sing. But the meaning, really, was: Things don't change, they're not so bad.
And so it follows that this "going back to where we belong" is not so bad, either. R.E.M.'s final offering is the perfect closer to my 2011 year-end collection of songs, but if you play this collection on a loop, it feeds right back into the opening track, "Burning Up The Sky," delivered in the same key by a twenty-something band called the Parson Red Heads. On the heels of R.E.M.'s end-of the-road concluding statement, the Parsons reopen the dialogue with wide-eyed wonder: "We are living, living in a new age, living in a new age, kicking up the dust."
As I write this, there is a picture on my laptop screen of a breathtaking midsummer sky -- layered shades of grayish blue, brilliant red and glowing orange reflected upon the waters of Liberty Bay, against a silhouette of evergreen trees, a lonely rooftop, and a hillside speckled with the scattered lights of town, stretching out across the horizon. It looks for all the world like a heart-stopping sunset. But, in fact, it was taken just before the dawn.