New Adventures in Hi-Fi: My Journey Into R.E.M., Part 4
When I started this series I honestly had no idea R.E.M. was on the threshold of releasing yet another studio album, Collapse Into Now. And as much as I would love to check out the new album, I think I’m going to hold off for a bit. I’d like to continue down the path I started in order to get a better perspective of their output so I can approach the new record with more than an outsider’s mindset (unlike what I had when I reviewed Accelerate).
We’re up to album number five, Document. It’s the last studio disc R.E.M. released on the I.R.S. label, and it is the group’s first major commercial hit. My first thought as “Finest Worksong” got underway — HELLO big rock production! My second thought — Hey, so that’s what Michael Stipe sounds like when he faces the microphone!
Document boasts a lot of nuance and texture, and for the first time on an R.E.M. record Peter Buck’s guitars don’t dominate the proceedings. In fact, I can’t recall being so aware of Bill Berry or Mike Mills on any of the band’s first four studio LPs. But really this was Stipe’s coming out party. While I know that some fans and critics like the mumbly Stipe, I find his more open vocal delivery to be a real asset here. “Disturbance at the Heron House,” a solid but unspectacular number, is just one of the tracks that really benefits from his assured vocal performance.
I don’t know if the credit for coaxing Stipe out of his shell goes to the band or producer Scott Litt, but either way it’s a change for the better. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll be revisiting “Strange” very often. The nasally, whiny affectation Stipe produces is really off-putting.
While there are some off-kilter musical moments on Document — “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” is a quick-fire classic that puts Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to shame — it sounds to me like some of R.E.M.’s rougher edges have been polished. It’s not quite commercial, but neither is it all that alternative to me. Or at least that’s how it seems looking at this album almost a quarter century after its release.
OK, let’s talk highlights. “Exhuming McCarthy” is a curious song to me. It’s clearly a very pointed political statement, but the effect is undercut somewhat by the upbeat arrangement. I guess that’s for the best, as a more dour approach might have felt suffocating; too much like of of those message songs.
Then there’s “The One I Love,” which was deservedly R.E.M.’s first hit single (reaching #9 in the U.S.). It’s a perfect synthesis of the classic, jangly R.E.M. sound and the more punchy, straightforward rock style they seemed to be embracing at the same time. While this song finds the band still clearly indebted to groups like the Byrds, it really shows how they had taken things to the next level. Oh, and imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was Mike Mills singing the background vocals and not a woman! And also, how cool is it that Alton Brown was the director of photography for the video?
The remainder of what used to be known as Side Two is nearly as strong. “Fireplace” grabbed me at once, with its entrancing beat and chord progressions. And listen to that sax solo! If that doesn’t add instant class and maturity to a rock song I don’t know what does. This and “Lightnin’ Hopkins” are prime examples of R.E.M.’s new-found emphasis on rhythm (dig that funky, poppin’ bass by Mills).
Document ends on a subdued note. The penultimate “King of Birds,” with its martial drumming, dulcimer, and droning instrumentation, feels like it just rolled in like mist from the Scottish highlands; while the sinister, almost primal “Oddfellows Local 151” squelches and slithers toward the finish line under a wave of guitar feedback. It’s a bold choice to end the album, but the more I think about it the more it makes sense.
Favorite songs: “Finest Worksong”, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”, “The One I Love”, “Fireplace”, “Lightnin’ Hopkins”, “Oddfellows Local 151”
And so now we enter the Warner Bros. era and kick things off with Green. The band seems to be playing it safe for their major label debut on songs like the straightforward, peppy “Pop Song 89” and “Get Up,” although the latter is infused with a touch of bite and weirdness. Peter Buck breaks out the mandolin for “You Are the Everything,” which is an instrument I used to assume was always part of their sound. It’s a pretty tepid song, and already Green is in favor of drifting off course.
And then comes “Stand,” which I will forever and always associate with the awesome Chris Elliott show Get a Life. But even without that, it’s a nifty slab of songwriting with an undeniably strong hook. Then, before I knew it, the album changed directions so fast with the mid-tempo seriousness of “World Leader Pretend” I almost broke my neck. (I dug the brief lap steel guitar part though.)
And that ultimately is what makes Green problematic for me — too many abrupt shifts in direction with little sense of cohesion. For once the more linear songs are the better ones. In addition to “Stand” there’s the pulsing rock crunch of “Orange Crush” and the pounding “Turn You Inside-Out,” both of which outstrip the meandering mellowness of “You Are the Everything” or “The Wrong Child.”
Maybe time will change my mind in this regard, but for now I think R.E.M.’s forays into modern folk on this record are misfires. One exception to this is “Hairshirt,” which succeeds in slowing things down without plodding. Buck’s mandolin is used to good effect here, which is nice to hear.
The band takes another stab at epic alternative on “I Remember California,” which is every bit as dark and electric as “Oddfellows Local 151.” It’s almost strong enough to make up for the weaker moments on Green, but not quite. The final number, alternately named “11,” “hidden track,” or “untitled” depending on your source, is hardly essential but does help lighten the mood. A musical palate cleanser, if you will.
Looking more closely at the track listing for this album, it strikes me as an odd coincidence that for the second time in a row R.E.M. saved their best material largely for the back half. The main difference is that Document was more consistent on the whole.
Favorite songs: “Stand”, “Orange Crush”, “Turn You Inside-Out”, “Hairshirt”, “I Remember California”