Alt rock’s lifelong nostalgia act.

R.E.M.’s fans have been saying “R.E.M. sucks” since 1984. Reckoning, the band’s second album (not counting the Chronic Town EP), sucked because it wasn’t Murmur. The next album, Fables of the Reconstruction (or was it Reconstruction of the Fables?), sucked because it was too soft. Life’s Rich Pageant was louder but sucked because it was intelligible. The Top 10 Document sucked because it was too popular. Green, the first album R.E.M. put out that wasn’t on the IRS label, sucked because it was too Warner Bros. Out of Time sucked because it was too pop. Automatic for the People—well, nobody thought Automatic sucked. But all the albums since Automatic: They suck.

So, let’s be clear. R.E.M. does not suck. They’re the best rock band of the last two decades of the 20th century. (If you’re a U2 fan, add “American” to the sentiment.) But despite the critical acclaim, the millions of records sold, and the influence exerted on bands from Nirvana to Radiohead, R.E.M. finds itself on a slow slide into middle-aged nostalgia act. The three remaining band members are heading toward 50, and the past two R.E.M. albums have barely charted. Reveal, the band’s most recent album, didn’t even go gold, selling less than 500,000 copies in the United States. Now R.E.M. has just finished a sad greatest-hits-style tour, playing in unfilled arenas that bands like Radiohead have no trouble selling out. The tour will be followed by the release of In Time, a “best of” album, at the end of the month. (Kansas City’s Pitch Weekly nicely summed up the cynic’s take on the tour and the new record as “a two-for-one special on sellout moves.”)

But one thing breeds hope in the R.E.M. fan’s heart that the band can avert its transmogrification into an alt-rock Eagles or Rolling Stones: Maybe it’s easier to bear the cross of middle-aged rock stardom when a good chunk of your fan base has been accusing you of being washed up since before you were 30.

From almost the beginning, there’s been something backward-looking about R.E.M. fandom, a secret wish that R.E.M. never become more than a heralded but middling-selling college band from Athens, Ga.—even though such obscurity would mean that the vast majority of R.E.M. fans engaged in this Edenic pining would never have discovered them. Band friend Natalie Merchant has succumbed, saying in 1995, “I don’t know if I’m being nostalgic, but when they do a song like ‘So. Central Rain’ or ‘Fall on Me,’ I get a feeling that I don’t get with a lot of the newer material.” For a considerable subset of fans, the band’s concerts are largely exercises in subtle, cooler-than-thou boasting. When I went to a show during the 1995 Monster tour, I tried to distinguish myself from the throngs of teenage girls by wearing my ratty T-shirt from the 1989 Green tour. Mere moments after entering the gate, I was outclassed and shamed by a man in a pristine shirt—it must have been kept vacuum-sealed on a closet shelf—from the band’s 1987 Work Tour.

During R.E.M.’s commercial peak, its members openly fretted about aging gracelessly, and the ‘90s were their decadelong struggle with approaching middle age. “Hopefully, we’re not going to put out Chicago XIV,” Michael Stipe told Rolling Stone in 1992. “That would be my worst fear, that we would turn into one of those dumb bands who go into their second decade and don’t know how bad they are and don’t know when to give it up.” Out of Time and Automatic for the People were R.E.M.’s renunciations of rock-band status, and Monster was their midlife-crisis attempt to reclaim it. New Adventures in Hi-Fi tried to mix the two approaches, and Up, the first album done without drummer Bill Berry, was a failed experiment in art rock. Reveal continued the band’s late-’90s decline.

In retrospect, the band’s host of promises—broken, one by one—to their fan base appear designed specifically to ward off the dilemma they now find themselves in. They vowed never to play a venue larger than 5,000, then it was 12,000, then they said they would never do an arena tour. They would never lip-sync in their videos. They would never sell a song for commercial purposes. (True, they turned down Bill Gates’ proffered green for Windows 95 commercials—a paycheck the Rolling Stones happily cashed—but they did provide “Stand” for use as the theme song to Chris Elliott’s sitcom, Get a Life.) They would break up on New Year’s Eve 1999. They would break up if only one band member quit. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.

But now, with R.E.M. in its third decade of recording, the three remaining members appear to have acquired a newfound acceptance of their lifelong nostalgia-act status. “I don’t know that people want us to do new songs anymore,” Peter Buck said while promoting the recent tour. “Even starting in the ‘90s, I felt audiences were looking for songs they’d heard before.” Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis told Buck, “You’re enough of a student of rock history to know that the best-of album is traditionally a ‘biding your time’ move,” and Buck conceded, “It is to a certain degree. It’s either that or the final curtain. You were kind of polite not to say that.”

U2, R.E.M.’s fellow alt-rock elder statesmen, dealt with its declining popularity by issuing (the ironically titled?) All That You Can’t Leave Behind, a return to the “old U2” sound of the 1980s. It was U2’s Steel Wheels moment, their Indian summer after a decade on the skids. But it was also a concession that U2’s days of experimenting with new sounds were over. R.E.M. faces a similar turning point. For years, the band members have said they could churn out songs that sound like their oldies but goodies, but they prefer to push themselves in new directions, audience be damned. R.E.M.’s next album is scheduled for release in 2004, and many fans would prefer a failed experiment to an ear-pleasing mimicry of their best work, one that’s unsatisfying all the same because it’s still an imitation. Only the band can decide: Do they want to be R.E.M. or an R.E.M. cover band?