If you’re one of those R.E.M. snobs who rolled their eyes and gagged when “Everybody Hurts” was a hit in 1993, now is a good time to apologize. That sentimentalist single shows up about halfway through this 40-song retrospective — the first to span the band’s entire career — and it’s unlike anything that comes before or after. Notorious guitar jangler Peter Buck plays a riff so innocuous you barely notice it behind bassist Mike Mills’s church organ, and when Michael Stipe chimes in, there’s no doubt about what he’s saying or what he means: “If you think you’ve had too much of this life/ well, hang on.” Strings kick in, arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones with tact and grace.
“Everybody Hurts” is an overt reminder that R.E.M.’s catalog is founded on a rare spirit of compassion. That’s not to say there aren’t clunkers here: “Stand”‘s garish awfulness isn’t rescued by the band’s disclaimer that it was stupid by design, and “Shiny Happy People” perhaps belongs on a worst-of compilation, not a best-of. Still, for all their conventionality — the endless midtempo four-four rhythms, the predictable chord changes, the seeming inability to be even mildly offensive — R.E.M. was truly weird and revolutionary. They did more than just pioneer the delivery of indie rock to the masses; in nearly 30 years of rock ‘n’ roll hugeness and importance, they never wrote a song demanding satisfaction or a moronic paean to a girl walking down the street. In the land of macho, they were relentlessly un-so, preferring instead to highlight the awkwardness of our stance in the world, and our perennial failed attempts to act delicately within its indelicacy. Buck, Mills and Stipe (and, until 1998, drummer Bill Berry) never spelled this out for us; instead they wrote loopy, indirect songs about sidewinders, nightswimming, anxious train conductors and gardening in the dark. Some of us knew it all along; the rest of us can figure it out looking back.