R.E.M. with Sparklehorse at the Air Canada Centre (40 Bay), Tuesday (September 30), 7:30 pm. $29.50-$75. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Although a spring 2004 release for the highly anticipated new R.E.M. studio album may be wishful thinking, the band have decided to push ahead with their first major tour in eight years. When you're in one of the world's biggest rock bands, logistical trivialities like album release dates and a conspicuous lack of fresh material to flog are for marketing flunkies to fuss over.
So why tour now? Well, they do have a "best-of" collection, In Time 1988-2003 (Warner) that's due out October 28. But the real reason they're playing shows instead of putting in long hours at Bryan Adams's Warehouse Studios in Vancouver is simply because they can.
"We probably could've finished the new record and had it out this fall if we kept working," explains Peter Buck before a show in Austin, Texas. "But we felt like playing the summer festivals in Europe and then coming back to tour North America.
"As much as I love being in the recording studio, it is work. Going on the road still feels like a vacation. We get to play every night and hang out with friends. It's kinda like being an adolescent again, a chance to live out what I wished for as a 17-year-old. We all have real lives, but it's fun to step into that rock 'n' roll fantasy world now and then."
Retrospective releases like the forthcoming In Time disc (check the group's Web site at www.remhq.com for more information) typically inspire a career reassessment. The past 15 years have been particularly turbulent for R.E.M.
Yet despite drummer Bill Berry's nearly dying from a brain aneurysm during the Monster tour of 95, then quitting in October 1997, and the band's near breakup during the making of 1998's Up (Warner), they've managed to come up with their most creatively adventurous music yet.
Many would agree that 1992's magnificently realized Automatic For The People (Warner) was a career peak. There have also been some lows, particularly the chart-pandering episodes that resulted in annoying anomalies like Shiny Happy People from 1991's Out Of Time (Warner). However, the inspiring moments still far outweigh the embarrassing ones.
"I think immediately after finishing an album, everyone in the band feels it's not as good as we hoped it would be. I never listen to our records until years after they're out. In going back to them, I tend not to remember the things I didn't like, so even the songs I didn't care for at the time can sound really good to me.
"Of course, there are always going to be things you put on a record just because you need another song - stuff we'd never play live - but generally speaking, I'm very proud of everything we've released. I don't think we've made a bad record yet."
Listening to the old songs and playing them in front of enormous audiences of ardent fans who know each oblique phrase and mandolin lick are two very different things. They had to spend a few days relearning the old tunes before shipping out.
"This time we wanted to play a lot more songs than usual, to keep things fresh, so we went back over some stuff we hadn't thought about playing in 15 years. When it hits you that you can't remember how a tune goes or even who you were when you wrote it, you get the feeling of being in an R.E.M. cover band. That's strange.
"We aren't planning on doing anything from the album in progress, but maybe the two new songs, Bad Day and Animal, from the In Time collection."
The upbeat new Bad Day single and video - a swipe at the infotainment pursuits of television news - isn't entirely new, but rather, an outtake from 1986's Life's Rich Pageant (EMI) sessions with pointed new lyrics composed by Michael Stipe. So it's not an accurate indication of what to expect from R.E.M.'s as-yet-untitled forthcoming album.
"We've got 10 to 12 songs finished, or pretty close," says Buck. "They generally seem rawer and more chaotic. We're going to continue writing and then try to figure out where we need to take the album. We've got so much recorded already that it could go in many different directions.
"I was really happy with Reveal, but having made that as lush as it was, with all the strings and overdubbing, it would be good to go the other way and keep things stripped down this time."