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Iconic R.E.M. calls it a day after 15 albums and a declining presence

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:49AM

“Just the slightest bit of finesse / Might have made a little less mess / But it was what it was / Let’s all get on with it now.” — Michael Stipe, “Discoverer”

It’s the end of an American institution as we know it: R.E.M. announced Wednesday that the band is calling it quits.

Mid-afternoon, the band posted a simple epitaph on its website: “To Our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.”

Singer Michael Stipe added: “A wise man once said — ‘The skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave.’ We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we’re going to walk away from it. I hope our fans realize this wasn’t an easy decision; but all things must end, and we wanted to do it right, to do it our way.”

So ends 31 years together and 15 albums, a body of work that sounds like little else in contemporary pop and includes modern-rock milestones such as the band’s impressionistic debut, 1983’s “Murmur”; careful steps into the mainstream (1987’s “Document” and 1988’s “Green”), and the group’s well-balanced, acoustic-electric magnum opus, 1992’s “Automatic for the People.”

Its sound — a moody mix of Southern gothic atmosphere and art-rock pretension — wasn’t overly groundbreaking, and it took its time seeping into American pop consciousness. “Unlike Nirvana, whose success defined an era,” critic Ira Robbins has written, “the equally inscrutable R.E.M. worked their way into household namedom without setting off any revolutionary times-they-are-a-changin’ alarms.”

Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry came together in the fertile college music town of Athens, Ga. (they were later the centerpiece of a great 1987 documentary about that scene, “Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out”). Critics hailed their 1982 debut single, “Radio Free Europe,” and with every subsequent release, the praise grew louder, the audience grew larger, and more important, the band’s artistic choices remained largely uncompromised and more intriguing.

But after 1996’s hodge-podge collection, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi,” drummer Bill Berry bailed out, opting to retreat to his Georgia farm. The loss of a drummer doesn’t often tear a large hole in a band, but R.E.M. seemed adrift after that. The remaining trio members soldiered on with various session players but never quite got their groove back.

For some, R.E.M. ceased to be a going concern years ago. They gave us several opportunities to jump ship — Stipe’s suddenly crisp enunciation around the “Document” album after years of wonderfully murky vocals, the harsh squall of 1994’s “Monster” (hailed at the time, but it hasn’t held up), the limp R.E.M.-by-numbers of 2004’s “Around the Sun.”

In 2007, the same year R.E.M. was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Buck appeared in a documentary about singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. Buck is always juggling side projects, from early days producing the Feelies to his mid-’90s free-jazz band Tuatara, and the film “Sex, Food, Death … and Insects” chronicles Hitchcock’s recent work One of the things I remember most about Buck’s appearances in that film is his complaining about what a chore making music within R.E.M. had become and that he preferred his less labored, more extemporaneous experience with Hitchcock.

Recent R.E.M. albums weren’t bad, by any means, but they lacked collective inspiration. This year’s “Collapse Into Now,” though, is a joyous revelry in many of the characteristics that make this band so readily identifiable. I reviewed it as “funny and loose and wonderfully tuneful … [it] takes the various bits from R.E.M.’s bag of tricks and scrunches them into a crackling, current guitar-band sound. It’s a record that sounds like it was made by a band, instead of an icon.” As such, it’ll make a fine final statement on the band’s iconic, some might argue iconoclastic, career.

“Our music is timeless because we try not to be of-the-moment,” Mills told USA Today upon that album’s release. “There are certain instruments and production values that, if you hear them now, your brain is like, ‘Oh, that’s from the early ’80s.’

“We avoid that, so that’s helped carry our music through the years.”

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