The Infinite Jukebox: R.E.M.’s ‘We All Go Back Where We Belong’

I was an R.E.M. fan for longer than I’d ever have imagined it possible to have one act, one band, stand at the precise centre of everything you loved and wanted from music. From that random impulse one Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1984 to tape a song I’d heard about but not heard, to the announcement that, after fifteen albums in twenty-seven years, and more live gigs than anyone else I’ve ever been to see, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe would no longer work together, they and no-one else were who I wanted to hear and see the most.
Even so, I can’t argue that the band didn’t lose something after Bill Berry, drummer and backing singer, left after the tenth album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It’s not like you could blame the guy, after all he had suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm during the world-wide Monster tour, and that’s the kind of incident that makes you start to rethink your priorities.
The albums that followed, with one possible exception, didn’t match up to the early stuff. As much as I liked them when they came out, buying them on the day of release and drilling them into my memories, there was no getting away from the fact that in no way did they come close to either Automatic for the People (not just my favourite R.E.M. Album but my favourite ever) or Reckoning (my first).
Up was over-produced and too reliant upon keyboards. Reveal had some good tracks and an overall clearer feel but not enough standout songs. Around the Sun (the first to include a title track) the nadir when it came to slow, overblown and insubstantial songs, a going-through-the-motions affair.
On the other hand, Accelerate was a much-needed injection of pace, guitars and out and out shock, short, sharp songs punching you in the chest, a back-to-our-roots matter whose only, but unavoidable failing was that this had to be achieved self-consciously, instead of being the natural outpouring of R.E.M.’s musical soul.
And lastly Collapse Into Now. Building back towards the more sophisticated R.E.M. style of the late Nineties to mid-Noughties, this time upon the base established by Accelerate rather than the multiple-album edifice Accelerate‘s predecessors had become.
Things were very different over those last five albums. For one thing, each album used to be trailed by singles, first 12”ers then CD singles boasting bonus tracks, recorded during the sessions but not deemed part of the album, enough to sustain four singles worth of extras. We fanatics, who went out and bought all those singles, even the vinyl 7”ers I still keep even though I’ve not had a record deck for a dozen years, know all these songs intimately, made cassettes to play in our cars, adding the relevant songs to fill up 45 minute sides. Now there was none of this. No rarities popping up to swell out singles, not any more. The creative explosion that underpinned every album had diminished. I missed it, badly. You should hear some of those b-sides!
And then Buck, Mills and Stipe got together to start writing, arranging and recording songs towards a putative sixteenth album. Three songs were written and laid down. And then, it seems, they all looked at each other, and asked themselves and each other if they still wanted to go on with this? And the answer was no, and R.E.M. ended.
It goes without saying that I miss them to this day. They’ll never return, never play together again, never record another song, but that doesn’t stop me missing them. I’m on my fourth and fifth iterations of the albums by now, depending on which one you’re talking about: the LPs, the standard CDs, the IRS extended CDs, the special edition CDs, the 25th Anniversary sets… Guess you might call me a fan.
Those last three tracks weren’t buried though. They came out as the end of the career retrospective Greatest Hits double-CD, Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, released in 2011. Two of them are negligible, but the other one isn’t. ‘We All Go Back Where We Belong’ has an aptly elegiac title, sung in Michael Stipe’s softest and most regretful voice, a gentle love ballad lit by Bacharachian-strings and boasting one of the band’s most affecting choruses, in both music and words.
I can taste the ocean on your skin, Stipe sings. That is where it all begins. Those lines alone would be enough to make the song what it is, before we sings, with an air of unintended finality, We all go back to where we belong. I need no more. The worlds contained in those lines, exact, breathy, mellowed, that carries them…
‘We all go back where we belong’ is only the penultimate track on Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, for some unearthly reason. You know there’s nothing else that can follow it, and in the long life of R.E.M. nothing did. The last song written. They still had it in them, they still had all of it, undiminished. And now I’ll never hear a new R.E.M. song ever again.


6 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: R.E.M.’s ‘We All Go Back Where We Belong’

  1. That’s wonderful, and I’d never heard it. My relationship with REM closely mirrors your own, except I only saw them once, my first album was Fables not Reckoning (and my favourite is now whichever of those two I listened to last), and sadly I’ve never been a completist to quite the same degree, so I never bought the final compilation. More fool me as I had never heard this. Thank you, it’s quite something to finally discover.

    1. To be honest, that’s the only one of the three previously unreleased tracks worth listening to, but it shows them still at their brilliant best after a quarter century. Completist? Oh yes…

  2. I’m more of the mainstream era of the band from Out of Time to Monster, not so much the early years. But post-Monster there was just something in the dynamic they never really recaptured, Berry’s departure, branching out and going away from success.

    I’m always hopeful of a reunion, but these guys have always had principles.

    1. I got in on nearly the ground floor with Reckoning, and of the period you specify there’s only Automatic for the People that fully satisfies me, obviously so as it still is my favourite ever album. Like I said, post-Bill Berry they statrted to fall away, but even at the very end they were capable of something like this track, which is as good as anything they ever did. No, there’ll be no reunion, there’ll be no more new songs. We can wish, however…

      1. I think the touring hiatus those years, let them really focus.

        And I never got to see them live which bums me. Their last tour they didn’t come around me…

  3. And I saw them seven times, three times in the first twelve months. That first gig was the best, they were still so excited at just being on stage playing. The last, one of two open-air stadium gigs, was sheer luck: we couldn’t afford tickets but won a pair in a newspaper competition, giving my then wife her only opportunity to see the band. Memories.

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