Ten years ago this week, R.E.M. wrapped up their three-decade career as a band with the release of Collapse Into Now. They didn’t make it public at the time, but they recorded the album with the knowledge that it would be their last work. Simply put, everyone in the band was burned out and ready to take on other projects.
“Once Pro Tools was invented, [making albums] was no fun,” guitarist Peter Buck told Rolling Stone in 2016. “We made a couple of albums where I thought, ‘I don’t even know if this is a record. It’s just some sounds we put together.’”
They remained a huge draw on the concert circuit, especially in Europe, but playing the old songs over and over was growing tiresome. They played their last full show in Mexico City on November 18th, 2008, and when they gathered a year later to begin work on Collapse Into Now, the final album they owed their label, everyone was in the same headspace.
“Michael [Stipe] said, ‘I think you guys will understand,'” Buck said. “‘I need to be away from this for a long time.’ And I said, ‘How about forever?’ Michael looked at Mike [Mills], and Mike said, ‘Sounds right to me.’ That’s how it was decided.”
There was no real talk of a farewell tour, so Collapse Into Now became the final gift to their fans. And on “Discoverer,” the final single, Stipe wrote what he called “one of the only autobiographical songs of my career.” It’s about moving to New York in 1979 and discovering the magic of the city.
“It’s about realizing that the city offers you this unbelievable potential and opportunity — all the things you are looking for in your teens and your twenties,” Stipe told Interview Magazine. “That’s what New York offered me. The lyrics are: ‘Floating across Houston/This is where I am/I see the city rise up tall/The opportunities and possibilities/I have never felt so called/Remember the vodka espresso/Night of discovery.'” (Here’s the video for “Discoverer,” which Stipe directed along with his sister, Lynda Stipe.)
Six months after the album hit, R.E.M. announced their breakup in a group statement. “As lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band,” they wrote. “We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished.”
They’ve resisted all offers to re-form during the past decade, and two years ago Rolling Stone, listed their odds of a future reunion at just 30 percent in a round-up of several dormant bands, including Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Talking Heads.
Mike Mills responded to the article on Twitter. “Nice of Mr.—*checks article*—Andy Greene to determine that bands only reunite because of the ‘lure of a big-money reunion,'” he wrote. “They might actually enjoy playing together. Andy.”
It should be noted that the “lure of a big-money reunion” line was taken from the intro to the article and not specifically tied to R.E.M. And since we wrote that, My Chemical Romance, the Black Crowes, Rage Against the Machine, and Mötley Crüe did reunite, and it’s safe to say that money probably had at least something to do with their decisions.
But Mills’ point stands. R.E.M. are indeed one of the few major rock bands in history to break up and remain close friends in the aftermath. And I don’t mind a little Twitter shade from Mills. He’s right that if they did re-form, it would have a lot more to do with friendship and music than money. In his own words, “They might actually enjoy playing together.” If that’s the case, why not give it a shot?