R.E.M.

"The world is collapsing around our ears"

Years active: Genres: Related artists:
1989 - 2011 Alternative rock, jangle rock n/a

Line-up: As is traditionally written, Berry / Buck / Mills / Stipe. Or in more detail, Michael Stipe (vocals), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass, piano and keyboards, backing vocals), Bill Berry (drums, backing vocals). Berry left in 1997 following an impending burnout and a potentially related brain aneurysm. A stable line-up and one amicable departure? Not bad for a band going on for nearly four decades!


If you really, really wanted to try and pin down my music taste with one single band, R.E.M. wouldn't be too far from the bullseye. They read like a tick box list of my pet favourite aspects: a singer full of personality, stand-out instrumental skills without exercises in egoism, great lyrics, a long and varied discography where the artist boldly forges ahead new paths and evolves as they try out different styles, a heavy load of background vocals, an ability to both punch you in the gut emotionally as well as raise a smile and laugh with... In fact, about the only box they miss is the one about being a good b-sides band.

Thing is, I didn't come to realise how well-tailored they were for me until well after having become a faithful fan, and reaching that stage was a long time coming. In fact, I actively remember having a strange aversion to the band in the first place when they first started to cross my line of sight in the late 90s (but then, my music tastes were in a whole different realm back then). After I first discovered that their music was actually something I found enjoyable, it took me a long time to get over my aversions for dipping into their back catalogue. By the early 00s when I discovered them they already had a sizable discography, extending all the way to the early 80s - and in my still-naive mind I figured that surely the band all the way back then would be nowhere near to the one I had found myself liking. R.E.M. did a lot to cure me of my aversions towards anything earlier than my contemporary music, and in doing so taught me a lot about how no matter when an artist released an album, it could still be something great. A lesson which, amusingly enough, I found myself having to defend much later when I came to find out that the rest of the world didn't agree with my takes on their latter-day albums.

Much of what makes R.E.M.'s vast amount of work easy to approach in its entire length is that despite the evolution in sound, the stylistic curveballs and changing approach to songwriting, the core of the band has always remained the same. You can trace direct lines between songs all the way from Murmur to Collapse Into Now: despite the rapidly changing sounds, R.E.M. has always had an identifiable melodic touch to their songwriting that's been there from day one. The line-up remaining the same throughout has an equal importance on that. All the way from their formation in 1980 to the very end, R.E.M.'s line-up remained by and far the same throughout*. That great bond between the four and the genuine friendship between them made their teamwork harmonious, everyone knowing how to best complement one another. R.E.M. is very much a band of people working together: there's hardly an individual show-off moment in the entire catalogue, and rarely does anyone take real lead. Instead everyone contributed equally in ways that would make the best song, and that democratic approach gave R.E.M. the longevity and strength to their music.

That's not to belittle anyone's individuals contributions, because all four are seriously strong musicians and could have easily become the lead in any other band. Michael Stipe is one of the great frontmen of music history with a unique voice with great charisma and range, and at best an incredibly insightful lyricist. Peter Buck's guitar work is precise and minimalistic, preferring melodies that allow space for other instruments over show-off soloing. Mike Mills' lively bass playing forms an integral part of the band's signature melodic touch, his skills with piano and keyboards became an increasingly important part of the band's sound as the years went along and his frequent, rich backing vocals are often cited as R.E.M.'s secret weapon, even though they're hardly secret. Bill Berry's drumming is one of perfect judgment, with each beat perfectly suited for the given song. And if anything, it's his backing vocals which are the real secret weapon: Berry contributed nearly as much as Mills to the vocal harmonies and quite often it's the interplay between the two that created some of the most iconic vocal moments in the band's music.

(* The big caveat here is, of course, Berry's early retirement. It says something about Berry's importance to the other three that they never officially replaced him, relying on session musicians instead because no one could have complimented R.E.M. permanently as well as Berry did. And while I'm the first to say that the band remained great even after his departure, in particular for the first couple of albums after his departure where the band relied more on programmed drums, once they tuned back onto a more rock direction which emphasised the core band more, it was clear something was missing.)

Of course, as already alluded to, there were changes during the 30-odd years the band were active - not just in terms of style but in their entire approach and the external context they found themselves in. R.E.M.'s timeline is amusingly coincidental, yet geek-tastically pleasing, in the way how it can be split into neat five-album chunks. For the first five albums of their life the band operated under I.R.S. Records and were the little underground heroes that could: each album a new kind of push in evolving the band's sound, and each album giving them a stronger footing in the wider musical scene. There's an understandable youthful vigour to these works and shows just how much of a steamroller the band could be in terms of sheer energy and strength. In what's one of the more legendary switches to a major label in alternative rock history, R.E.M. moved to Warner in the late 80s and inadvertently gave a countless future bands the message that it's possible to move to a bigger label while still retaining the mythical integrity and - more importantly - full creative control. During the next five album stretch the band entered their golden era, expanding their instrumentation, creating a string of classic albums and somehow becoming one of the biggest bands on the planet. Berry's departure marks the break into the last cycle for the band: now established statesmen of rock with the "elder statesmen" descriptor being visibly close, the remaining trio took a few albums to explore new sounds before accepting their place as a stadium act and treating their remaining years as a victory lap of a great legacy.

And yet, despite all these changes, the quality never really lapsed. There have been bumps small and large throughout the journey but there's no general rule you could draw out of it. The band's output was stunningly strong for the entire time span and even the somewhat weaker albums are scattered across the entire lifetime rather than lumped into one particular part of it. I don't like dismissing other people and accidentally finding myself on a holier-than-thou podium, but it has always struck me incredibly bizarre how some can draw clear borders after specific eras and declare anything afterwards as not worth one's time. R.E.M. had incredible chemistry between the members, which ensured that their skill in writing great songs never went away. If anything, I think R.E.M. should be held as an example that it's worth looking into every sector of a long-running band's history because you never know what you'll find and how many hidden treasures there are in the less 'cool' chapters of their annals. Although, with that said, if something ever did stumble with time without recovering, it's Stipe's lyrics: the last handful of albums found Stipe simplifying his lyrical style and in the process eroding much of what made his lyrics so great to begin with. I guess it's another fitting bookend, given how his earliest lyrics were little more than improvised word salads. Stylish salads, but still.

If it's not been clear enough from the above, R.E.M. are one of the all-time greats in my book. There's probably a good argument somewhere that as it stands now, they're the number one in my lists but that's a notion I probably would have been more passionate to declare when I was younger. Regardless, they're a phenomenal band that exemplifies so many things I love in music, both in music itself as well as any of the nerdy contextual bits that I pay too much attention to. Thus, all these reviews are written from the point of view of what you could call a fanboy I guess - someone with a deep personal love for the songs the band wrote during their long, rich career.

Main chronology:

Other releases:

Also check out the CD single reviews!


CHRONIC TOWN EP

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1982 8 "Gardening at Night", "Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)"

1) Wolves, Lower; 2) Gardening at Night; 3) Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars); 4) 1,000,000; 5) Stumble

It's lowkey incredible how a humble debut EP can nail down so much of the band's magic already.

A solid debut EP can really add to a band's legacy. Ones that still offer something so unique and exciting that you happily return to them even after the band has been releasing music for decades afterwards, especially so. Viewed from that angle, Chronic Town is one hell of a release. It's a snapshot of a young and hungry band who are still compensating the lack of honed craft with pure energy, but who make it work and create the kind of memorable entrance I imagine got a lot of people very, very interested back in the day.

Most of Chronic Town runs on a single trick: Buck jangles his guitar, Stipe mumbles through lyrics, Mills and Berry provide a formidable rhythmic backbone that not-so-secretly carries the disc. That one trick is all it needs. There's an exhilarating energy running through the five songs, the quite frankly exciting instrumental parts weaving simple but strong melodies in a manner that merges the urgency of post-punk with the lushness of jangle pop. Stipe is already a commandeering front man, incoherent as he may be here but already exhibiting the mannerisms and range he's known for. There's an obvious greenness to the band but it's far from being an obstacle because so many pieces are already falling in place.

It's the actual songs, not the sound, that make Chronic Town notable though. Very few debut EPs carry an essential cut in them, but Chronic Town has "Gardening at Night", the first real R.E.M. classic. It's where the EP's formula hits perfection, and the combination of Michael's higher register, the sharp chiming notes of the guitar and Mills' steady and sturdy bassline creates an alluring atmosphere and it's got the strongest set of melodies of the EP scattered consistently through the track. It would absolutely have a place in any R.E.M. retrospective even today, and given it's become the most enduring track of the EP even in the band's eyes means I'm not the only one who thinks that way. "Wolves, Lower" and "Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)" are brilliant accompaniments to it. The former is thick with murky atmosphere until it suddenly bursts into its perky chorus, a sudden gear switch that's quickly showcases the EPs primary ingredients and makes for a fitting introduction for the band. "Carnival of Sorts" is the other big standout: it's as close to a rock-out as R.E.M. would get this early on, with a killer hook in its chorus vocal arrangement as Mills and Stipe trade off lines amid the rush of energy. It's a thrilling swirl of rhythm and melody interweaving.

The flip side of the EP isn't quite as exciting but it's still strong enough. "1,000,000" is the weakest of the lot but only because it adds nothing new to the mix: everything it has to offer the band have already showcased in a stronger fashion during the first three songs, and as a result it falls of the wayside somewhat. "Stumble" is arguably the weakest song of the lot, being a structurally monotonous jam that doesn't quite have enough meat to support its full length, but the band's talent as instrumentalists really shines here, Mills in particular: the bass parts of "Stumble" are incredible in all their vibrating spring-like glory and them, along with the rest of the instrumental prowess at display, stop "Stumble" from stumbling over. It caps off the EP in a rather solid fashion despite being a bit of an oddball of a song, leading to a finish worthy of the first three songs. And while it's a decent finish, it's those opening songs that not only pave the way forward but gets you coming back. The actually impressive thing is how well they still stand within the bigger picture of R.E.M.'s whole discography: Chronic Town is by no means the curio early days release just for the hardcore fans you'd probably expect, but it's a relevant thing to check out even now. A lot of the signature magic is already in here.

Physically: n/a, I own this packaged together with Dead Letter Office (reviewed further down)


MURMUR

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1983 8 "Radio Free Europe", "Perfect Circle", "Shaking Through"

1) Radio Free Europe; 2) Pilgrimage; 3) Laughing; 4) Talk About the Passion; 5) Moral Kiosk; 6) Perfect Circle; 7) Catapult; 8) Sitting Still; 9) 9-9; 10) Shaking Through; 11) We Walk; 12) West of the Fields; The IRS Vintage Years Edition bonus tracks: 13) There She Goes Again; 14) 9-9 (Live); 15) Gardening at Night (Live); 16) Catapult (Live)

So different from where the band would end up but contains such obvious traces of their entire development throughout. The kind of debut that creates a legacy.

There's a lot of preconceptions flying around Murmur. It's knee-deep in R.E.M.'s mumbling phase where Stipe mutters nonsense incoherently, befitting of the murkiness of the album cover. The phrase “college rock” gets bandied around a lot around this period too, which brings its own associations of ragtag indie groups. It's also the debut album of a band with a long, long career ahead of them and whose - arguably - most famous works were a decade and a stylistic evolution away. Or maybe it's just me and my own pre-assumptions, but based on my past experiences I was expecting R.E.M.'s first full outing to have little to do with the band I had known.

If you've come to this from Chronic Town, which already had some identifiable R.E.M.-isms in it, it probably doesn't come as a surprise that a lot of those preconceptions are somewhat overstated, but the extent of how fully formed R.E.M. already are here is still notable. The songs are a little simpler here and there, but the album loves to throw surprises to mix things up: tracks where the arrangements and grasp of melody suddenly perk up with refinement, like the band had already been perfecting their art for years. The band that created “Shaking Through”, “Sitting Still” and “Laughing” is already miles away from the group of people behind Chronic Town; those songs also have some absolutely gorgeous moments lurking within, in particular the former with its superb vocal melodies and harmonies in its soaring chorus. Meanwhile “Talk About the Passion” is already R.E.M. as we know it, and a wonderful prelude to the more acoustic-based sound they'd become truly famous with. These are all songs where Murmur really comes alive, and they're all classically R.E.M.-like moments where all the components of the band's signature sound are already there and highlighted.

The best example of this is “Perfect Circle”, however. It's Murmur's big curve ball - an atmospheric, arrestingly beautiful and haunting mood piece driven by Mike Mills' piano, full of misty-eyed melancholy and intimate vulnerability. It's the kind of song that could have had a home in literally any R.E.M. album, regardless of decade - a song before its time, really. It's very clearly a stylistic standout from the rest of Murmur, but yet there's enough of its individual elements scattered across the album to make it feel at home in context. And it's a brilliant song, of course - a great tune married to a great lyric, enunciated by Stipe clearly in a manner that makes the song a clear spotlight moment for him.

But just because those more nuanced moments are Murmur's peaks, there really shouldn't be any dismissal of the songs where the band's post-punk roots have a bigger emphasis. Murmur is really Mills' and Berry's album in that respect, the former practically leading the songs with his melodic playing style while Berry backs him with the tightest drum playing - Buck's famous jangling is all over the place but more often it's there fill the gaps between the various rhythm section spotlight moments. “Radio Free Europe” demonstrates this brilliantly. It's an iconic debut single and much of it is because of how free-spirited and energetic it is, right from the intro that cuts the quiet build-up with an intent-affirming set of drum bangs. The bass line is great fun as Mills runs up and down the frets, and Stipe yelps his way through a melody that begs you to shout along even though you can't really be clear of the words.

It's a stormer of an opener, and sets way for a number of tracks in similar vein. “Pilgrimage” and the pounding “Catapult” are near-anthemic shout-alongs where Stipe commands the front with the kind of clarity that should bury the whole mumbling exaggeration, while “9-9” and “West of the Fields” are frantic high-speed numbers more reliant on their energy than anything. “West of the Fields” in particular has an almost-menacing urgency which gives the album a final punch of an ending, particularly as it launches after the quirky but fun almost-novelty singalong “We Walk”, which starts the band's grand tradition of throwing something lighthearted out of nowhere amidst an album.

The most astonishing thing, though, is that Murmur was released in 1983 and it still sounds fresh today. Not only fresh, but unique. R.E.M. managed to cook up an album that at the same time lays the basic foundations for so many future bands yet sounds like none of them. Unlike so many other older classic albums which either sound incredibly dated or simply weaker when compared to the artists that took their inspiration from them and expanded and developed on the ideas, Murmur has its own sound even today and stands above the competition. The only thing that nibbles away its timelessness is the production but the music has no era, and even the production issues are fixed by the 2008 remaster which does a great job. It's a fantastic start to an incredible journey, and when people say it's a classic album I'm not going to challenge that.

This comes off as awkwardly abrupt after all that gushing over, but the IRS Vintage Years re-release which I happen to own adds practically nothing of major interest in terms of bonus tracks. There's a cover of Velvet Underground's “There She Goes Again” that's thoroughly adequate but nothing to write home about, especially given R.E.M.'s tendency for rather faithful cover versions and my own particular aversions towards the VU. There are also three live tracks which are fine on the basis of the strength of the originals, but which offer nothing beyond that - “Gardening at Night” doesn't feature on Murmur and is the best cut of the Chronic Town EP, so in that way it's a handy bonus. By and far though, nothing particularly enticing. A better option is simply to spend a bit more money instead and get the aforementioned 2008 re-release, for the remastering job alone. Murmur has never sounded better.

Physically: Jewel case with a small fold-out booklet with credits, photos and an advert for the rest of the IRS reissues.


RECKONING

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1984 6 "Harborcoat", "So. Central Rain", "Time After Time (AnnElise)"

1) Harborcoat: 2) 7 Chinese Bros.; 3) So. Central Rain; 4) Pretty Persuasion; 5) Time After Time (AnnElise); 6) Second Guessing; 7) Letter Never Sent; 8) Camera; 9) (Don't Go Back To) Rockville; 10) Little America; The I.R.S. Years Vintage Edition Bonus Tracks: 11) Wind Out (With Friends); 12) Pretty Persuasion (Live in Studio); 13) White Tornado (Live in Studio); 14) Tighten Up; 15) Moon River

One foot in leftovers, another foot in haphazard ideas where to go next.

Reckoning was released nearly exactly a year after Murmur. The spark behind going to the second album so quickly was to capture the band's riveting live energy on tape while they were still feeling energised by the tour, but of course they needed new songs too. Murmur had been the result of picking the best out of the abundance of material they had at the time, and while they still had some of those leftovers ready for re-heating for album #2 they effectively had to start from scratch - make do with what they had written hastily on the road and the rough ideas they had to expand their sound so as not to replicate themselves.

Understandably Reckoning is like Murmur's little brother, more or less. Same style, same sound, same production team - there simply hadn't been any time for the band to focus on going anywhere different. To further underline this, the album also leads off with three direct Murmur leftovers: songs the band were already playing around their debut but didn't fine-tune until after the album. “Harborcoat” kicks off the album right where Murmur left off in fact: there's some really delightful bass runs and post-punk drumbeats powering its verses, while the chorus gets a melodic lift-off rich of harmony. It's both sides of R.E.M.'s early days brought together but kept separate, excitingly flicking back and forth. “South Central Rain” meanwhile is a deceptively simple tune of longing with one of Buck's classic jangle melodies, but the biggest credit here goes to Stipe. His grippingly yearning vocal delivery transforms the straightforward song into an evocative three minute era highlight, eventually leading the song into an explosive ending that stands at such contrast to the meek nature of the rest of it but which turns it into a triumph and one of their definitive songs, period. “7 Chinese Bros.” is perhaps a bit unfairly sandwiched between: it taps into the band's strengths at the time and is a fine song (with a particularly good chorus, I might add), but it feels a little overshadowed when stuck in the middle of the album's two best songs.

Once the album deals away with its predecessor's remains it starts to reveal shades of its own personality, and ironically starts to lag. The most notable difference between the two albums is that Reckoning is more rapid in its pace: shorter songs and less of them in total, many of them which breeze by as the band push them through with supersonic speed. Sometimes that doesn't feel like it was designed that way, either. A good chunk of Reckoning is a collection of sketches and seeming works in progress, indicative of the rush the songs were completed in - simple structures, repetitive lyrics and heavy usage of nearly wordless placeholder vocals. “Second Guessing” and “Letter Never Sent” in particular sound like half-baked demos with hints of good ideas present but too unfocused and unrealised to really stick around. “Pretty Persuasion” is another casualty of this, though this time the band knew they had a brilliant chorus kicking around, full of energy and vigour that makes it one of the record's highlight moments - shame then that the verses are like placeholders waiting to be completed. This is the case even with some of the more fleshed out material: “Little America” is a capable rock-out that feels more thought out than any of the ones listed earlier, but no amount of energy can hide how flat its writing is. As close as the two albums are, major parts of Reckoning fall very short from Murmur. Half the album screams of the band pushing things through just to get enough songs for a follow-up album.

The last set of songs sees R.E.M. stretch their wings, to mixed results. While most of Reckoning is carved from the same tree as Murmur (even if only from its chippings), these are the parts of it where the band do set their sights on brand new territories as they begin developing their sound further - and in a very varied fashion. The moody “Camera” is relatively tame in that aspect, but its steadily unhurried atmospheric direction still feels like night and day from the energetic pace of the rest of the album: but for all that and its wonderful organ and underlying sentiment (an elegy to a friend of the band who died too early), it stretches itself too far and melodically lacks in strength. “Time After Time (AnnElise)” is a particularly curious swerveball with a sudden steer towards more intricate arrangements and expanded instrumentation, and it acts as an exercise in layering elements from percussion to guitars, almost foreshadowing their early 90s. Buck's stand-out lead guitar riff swivels around a march-like rhythm with a curiously Eastern twang, and though the song isn't necessarily among the strongest of the bunch it's a fascinating twist which alone indicates there's more to this young upcoming band than you might realise. “(Don't Go Back to) Rockville”, then, is an interesting case in a different way. The country-twanged bar singalong has become an iconic R.E.M. moment over the years and it is absolutely one of the band's biggest smile-raisers, but the thing is that it's very much Mike Mills' song: his writing, his experiences (a wildly exaggerated love letter to a brief crush) and later on also his voice as Mills took full ownership of it live. The original Reckoning version on the other hand still features Stipe's vocals which simply feel illfitting now that I'm so used to the Mills-lead take, and both Stipe's performance and the arrangement here veer a little too much towards a country parody rather than an affectionate embrace of the genre. It's a classic song, but not in the form it's found here.

That's Reckoning in a nutshell really - ups and downs and caveats. It has solid ideas and moments but it wavers in its execution to the point that nearly half the album feels like it could do with one more do-over. After years and years of listening I still can't remember how big chunks of the album sound like, and that's even more obvious as I sit down to write about it. The best songs of Reckoning are either ones they brought with them from the previous album's sessions or when they take a rare wild stab in the dark, but that's half the album. Most of the rest are quickly scrambled together rock-outs that likely sounded better on stage than how they came together on the album. If Murmur is a classic start, then Reckoning really fails to live up to it - and the rest of the band's catalogue included. It's not so much a weak album as it is just flawed: a stop gap release to tide things over, albeit one with inarguable highlights. It's a music cliché, but if you were to look up a definition of a sophomore slump, Reckoning would show up as a classic example.

Much in the vein of the rest of the early 90s I.R.S. R.E.M. re-releases, the bonus tracks for Reckoning are little more than curios: a few live cuts and a couple of rough covers. “Wind Out (With Friends)” is an alternative take on a soundtrack cut that's also available on Dead Letter Office, this time with the band's brothers-in-arms Bertis Downs and Jefferson Holt in vocal duties; musically it's the same dumb fun punk throwaway as it always was. Both live versions of “Pretty Persuasion” and “White Tornado” are pretty pointless: both songs were mostly live-in-studio takes anyway and these versions come across almost identical to the originals. Curiously the overall feel of “Pretty Persuasion” here is slower and more phlegmatic, which is rather bizarre considering the album version was meant to represent the band's live energy to begin with. The two covers are a little more interesting. The early funk song “Tighten Up” has become an instrumental (bar Stipe's improvised yelping) in the band's hands and thus finely continues (or begins) the band's tradition of enjoyable, if a little throwaway, instrumental b-sides; it's the best song out of these five, in any case. The best part of the band's rendition of the classic “Moon River” (here a piano and voice moment straight out of the dramatic climax of a musical) is the odd, out-of-nowhere synthesizer outro it features, which comes off as downright radical for this band during this period. Still, much like all the other bonus tracks, not essential in the slightest.

Physically: Jewel case with a small fold-out booklet with credits, photos, etc. Nothing much of interest beyond a sketched out tracklisting with an alternative running order - "Letter Never Sent" as a closer?


FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1985 7 "Feeling Gravity's Pull", "Maps and Legends", "Life and How to Live It"

1) Feeling Gravity’s Pull; 2) Maps and Legends; 3) Driver 8; 4) Life and How to Live It; 5) Old Man Kensey; 6) Can’t Get There from Here; 7) Green Grow the Rushes; 8) Kohoutek; 9) Auctioneer (Another Engine); 10) Good Advices; 11) Wendell Gee; The IRS Years Vintage edition bonus tracks: 12) Crazy; 13) Burning Hell; 14) Bandwagon; 15) Driver 8 (Live); 16) Maps and Legends (Live)

Slower and moodier - R.E.M. add subtlety to their arsenal

Fables of the Reconstruction marks a change for R.E.M. After two albums recorded with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter back in their home country, with Fables R.E.M. found themselves in the UK with Joe Boyd manning the production desk. It didn’t go quite as planned: the band were already exhausted from the relentless non-stop touring of the past couple of years and the extended period spent in a strange country full of the typical British gloom and rain left the band on the run even more homesick and miserable. Stipe coped by burying himself into the US lorebook - tales of great wild frontiers, mythic individuals and events and the unique characters from where he grew up. Meanwhile the overall malaise affected the music the band came to record. Fables isn’t a melancholy or dark album, but murky might be a more appropriate term. It’s more downcast and the band’s famous energy they tried to especially showcase on Reckoning has been replaced by a number of mid-tempo, contemplative numbers; the band also kept fighting with Boyd to make the sound quieter and muddier than the producer wanted, resulting in the album's infamously muted sound. The cover of the album isn’t a particularly good one but its overwhelming browness and the photos of the band members lurking in shadows make it one of R.E.M.’s most descriptive.

The band turning inwards paves good way to expand on the flashes of new tangents that Reckoning’s more curious sidetracks showed, and Fables is R.E.M.’s most nuanced so far by a long shot. R.E.M. have always been brilliant in treating their album openers as perfect introductions to their albums and “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” is no exception. It’s full of pathos and mood, it slumbers rather than pushes forward and its driving element is Peter Buck’s piercing, foreboding guitar riff that’s a long way away from the happy-go-lucky jangling of the previous two albums. It’s when the song suddenly brings a string section to take the melody to a fragile, emotionally wraught rise, accompanied by Buck’s squealing guitar before bringing the song down again, that “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” really intones the album’s characteristic nature. It’s a small section of the song but so crucial to it, the pay-off to the ever-rising tension the song otherwise represents: a moment so great that it brings the whole song to a new light. It’s these moments that Fables is all about. The songs are largely one-track, one-tone affairs which come off practically monotonous for the longest while, until a sudden detail emerges that shifts the song to a new rail and absolutely makes it. Fables of the Reconstruction is an album of moods, and its highlights are the details that make the moods come alive.

To put it in another way, Fables isn’t an album where R.E.M.’s songwriting as a whole necessarily shines, but it’s full of moments that stay with you and colour your impressions of the rest of the songs. For some, it’s a staple part of the song like the guiding bass riff and the atmospheric guitar of “Old Man Kensey”, a song that’s on the brink of becoming a slog if those two riffs didn’t carry it afloat, or the gorgeous guitar riff that bridges the various sections of “Green Grow the Rushes” together (Fables is by and far where Peter Buck really steps in, after Mills and Berry dominated the first two albums; his guitar carries so many of the songs here). In others, it’s a single moment that uplifts the whole song. The railroad anthem “Driver 8” is one of Fables’ most famous songs and I’m of the opinion that it’s solely because of its middle 8 which, much like with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, pulls out the emotional chord of the song for a concentrated strike, underlining the wistful tone of the song that’s always there but somewhat obstructed, primarily by the little nothing of a chorus. Much of Fables operates on this basis. Particularly towards its latter half, with the stretch of the muted “Kohoutek” and “Good Advices” and the tense “Auctioneer”, it turns into an album where it’s not the songs that necessarily stick with you but abstract ideas of them and individual parts, be it how Stipe raises his voice during the title drop of “Kohoutek” or how wound-up and anxious “Auctioneer” becomes by its chorus (if the band weren’t having the best time during the recording of the album, it’s definitely audible in the mood of this song).

That’s not to say that there aren’t a handful of consistently gripping, A-game songs within Fables, and in fact the album is frontloaded with them - including “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” because despite its one standout moment, the way the song rides its lurching melody and Buck’s brilliantly ominous guitar riff is consistently excellent throughout and the choruses are almost sweet in their subtleness by comparison. “Maps and Legends” behaves like the big standout single even if it never was one: Stipe’s americana storytelling meets a melodically rich song which has a clarity the rest of the album intentionally avoids, packed with the album’s peak standout chorus enhanced by Mills’ backing vocals. It’s probably the most comfortably R.E.M.-esque song here, but I’m uncertain if it's the very best because its major competition is right round the corner in the tracklist. “Life and How to Live It” is Fables’ concentration point for all of the band’s early days energy, unleashed into a tour de force song where the band relentlessly thrust forward with a hyper pace as Stipe shouts out one long stanza after another. It only breaks for a moment for Stipe to yelp out the title before picking up again, sounding even more frantic as it kickstarts after the brief pause. Both songs are unfortunately also emblematic of the album's characteristic production issues. The muffled, almost shyly retreating sound generally keep the songs almost hidden away from sight and on these brighter, more energetic songs its impact is felt most gravely: the definitive versions of both songs are actually live versions found much later on (the Perfect Square rendition from 2003 for "Maps and Legends", the live version featured on the bonus disc for And I Feel Fine for "Life". It's a testament to the strength of both songs that they still triumph despite being held back. The same production issues don't quite affect the album's gorgeous closer “Wendell Gee” which finishes the record with all guns lowered and tension removed,as a gentle goodbye into the night where R.E.M.’s grand backing vocal power duo lay their vulnerable lament all over the song and right into the heart.

(There is also the mystifying case of “Can’t Get There from Here”, a song that takes the band’s tradition of including a bright pop song once per album and hammers the point down with its ridiculously cheery, jangly bouncing full of southern drawl and punchy horn sections. It really has absolutely no place on this album, and yet by the end of the song you’re smiling with the band and jamming along to the silly chorus. It’s a song that quite possibly works better outside its context than within, and I’ve really no idea how to place it within these broad categories I’ve created.)

Perhaps the key thing to take away from Fables of the Reconstruction is that it acts a little like a prototype for the band’s moodier side which they’d ride to triumph later on. It’s their first full step outside their original signature sound and like a lot of first steps go, it’s not quite firmly on the ground. It’s an album of lovely moments and sudden gorgeous surprises, bound together by a lot of appealing atmosphere but perhaps not so many real highlight songs - or alternatively, some potentially excellent material has been brought down by the very same production which also lends the album its intriguing, captivating and enigmatic atmosphere. It also admittedly takes a while to grow on you - out of all R.E.M. albums it’s been the most slow-burning of the lot, for a long time being one of my least appreciated of the lot but slowly revealing its charms on me. It’s still not one of the band’s strongest collections of songs, but even now it’s got a unique charm to it that picks things up when the songwriting occasionally falters.

The I.R.S. Years Vintage edition bonus tracks are actually not half that bad. “Crazy” is a cover of a song by the band’s peers Pylon and could just as well have been a lost R.E.M. gem, so well it fits the band’s style; the punchy chorus alone is a lot of fun and it’s actually one of the better 80s R.E.M non-album cuts. “Burning Hell” and “Bandwagon” are two R.E.M. original b-sides and they’re curious if nothing else: the former sounds almost like a R.E.M. take on 80s hard rock (but keeping it constrained enough), and “Bandwagon” is a silly throwaway more notable for Buck’s wildly chord-skipping guitar line than actual merit as a song. The live version of “Driver 8” keeps the reissue series’ trend of suitably enjoyable but kind of pointless live cuts, but the version of “Maps and Legends” at the end is actually an acoustic version which suits the song well, and works well as an interesting alternative take of a great song.

Physically: Another standard jewel case and a small booklet with basic info and artwork. You can flip the booklet for an alternative cover though, if you want to be a contrarian about the album title and call it "Reconstruction of the Fables" instead.


LIFE'S RICH PAGEANT

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1986 8 "Begin the Begin", "Fall on Me", "Cuyahoga"

1) Begin the Begin; 2) These Days; 3) Fall on Me; 4) Cuyahoga; 5) Hyena; 6) Underneath the Bunker; 7) Flowers of Guatemala; 8) I Believe; 9) What If We Give It Away?; 10) Just a Touch; 11) Swan Swan H; 12) Superman; 1986 I.R.S. Years Vintage Edition bonus tracks: 13) Tired of Singing Trouble; 14) Rotary Ten; 15) Toys in the Attic; 16) Just a Touch (Live in Studio); 17) Dream (All I Have to Do); 18) Swan Swan H (Acoustic Version)

More confidence, more muscle. R.E.M. kick up a gear and rock out.

A cliché, sure - a rock band follows a subdued album with a firecracker. But Life’s Rich Pageant isn’t just about kicking the gear back into speed mode after the moody Fables of the Reconstruction. An arguably even bigger impact lies with R.E.M.'s chosen producer for the album, Don Gehman: a more mainstream name at the time than their previous producers and a carefully deliberate choice. The idea was to polish the band’s sound a little and give it that extra punch you’d expect from a higher profile release, without sacrificing what made R.E.M.’s music their own. The band made a conscious attempt to clarify and focus their sound - some might say as a careful toe-dip into the waters of radio airplay or a compromise with their label (who'd been butting heads with the band about their staunch stance on doing things their own awkward way), but I would see it as a way bring everything out of the band’s evolving arrangements. The band knew they were about to take the next step in their musical evolution, and they wanted people to hear it.

The thing that still jumps out first and foremost from Life’s Rich Pageant is how much of a powerhouse of an album it is. It goes 100 miles a minute heading here, there and everywhere, and it’s the first R.E.M. album which genuinely rocks. There is more muscle to these songs than anything on the previous albums, partly because of the punchier and more dynamic production but partly also because the bulk of the songs themselves are very no-nonsense and direct in their approach - some even now have choruses you could imagine singing along to. All the flourishes are scattered in select parts throughout the album, which flicks from mood to mood at a moment’s notice: amidst the all-out rockers there’s all manners of chaotic playfulness in the form of very off-kilter sidesteps, be it novelty covers or faux-tropicalia cheekiness; meanwhile the approaches taken with the subtler songwriting on Fables of the Reconstruction are still present as well, just re-tailored for the new approach. The production isn’t particularly incredible from today’s technical point of view but there’s a marked difference to the previous albums that serves to highlight the songs for once, rather than hide them. There’s a clarity to the sound that hasn’t been there before, and in particular Stipe's voice has never before been mixed as loud and clear; with him taking the front stage loud and proud for the duration of the whole album, there’s a brand new fire in the band’s belly as the front man no longer hides away among the instruments.

That certain kind of sonic haziness admittedly contributed something to the first couple of albums but I’m happy to take the trade-off between it and the sheer vigour that R.E.M. display here. Life’s Rich Pageant lays its high-energy rock numbers constantly and consistently, and they’re not only a show of power but they’re such good fun to boot. “Begin the Begin” is probably the best of these and continues the tradition of iconic R.E.M. opening tracks as it powerhouses through its constantly changing structure without ever dropping its undeniable grasp on melody. It is effectively a rallying cry piloted by Berry’s pounding drums and Stipe’s increased visibility and charisma, and as has become tradition it’s a hell of an opener that lays down the album’s sonic base. Many of the album’s best parts similarly are its fastest, and they each have a little something different to offer. “Hyena” is raucous and hyperactive, “Just a Touch” is a manic shout-along that gives no respite (and goes completely hectic in its chorus, particularly with Berry’s drumming), “I Believe” has a smooth flow to it that gives it an elated feel and “These Days” is a bold, accelerating steam train where in its chorus R.E.M. are the most commanding they have ever been. They all sound like they have come from a brand new band when comparing them to any more robust songs of the earlier albums, and as lush as those songs were, they barely touch the same force that’s present here. It's exhilarating to hear R.E.M. so bold and thrilling.

In a typical R.E.M. fashion that’s not all that Life’s Rich Pageant has to offer, and in fact I’d have to say the album’s two most iconic cuts - or at least my very favourites - are from the entire opposite end. “Fall on Me” is a gorgeous showcase of vocal layering, a plaintive semi-ballad that not only layers verse melodies above each other but where Stipe and Mills share the chorus in equal parts to a beautiful effect, topped by Mills’ showstopper bridge that hammers in the song’s wistfulness and the layers of vocal harmonies from nearly everyone in the band that closes the track. It’s a simple but impressively effective song; reputedly one of Stipe’s personal all-time favourites and for a good reason. “Cuyahoga” is another one of the same kind, another song both beautiful and beautifully sad, this time driven by Mills’ bass and supported by another straightforward but stunning chorus, which by the end of the song has become a gigantic centrepiece. It’s a great example of how the nuanced songwriting of Fables merges with the muscular form of Life’s Rich Pageant: it's a song that predicts the future as much as it shows the band’s contemporary strengths.

The rest of Pageant is a little more hit and miss, in an almost certaintly intentional manner given the band’s love for curveballs but which still represents a marked difference from the first half's tightness. The goofy, tropically tinged mid-way hidden track (if you go by the physical tracklisting) “Underneath the Bunker” is effectively filler, even if it's entertaining; similarly the novelty bubblegum pop cover “Superman” (originally by The Clique) is superfluous in the grand scheme of things but it’s aksi irresistably fun, with Mills getting his album lead vocal debut with it. “Flowers of Guatemala”, “What If We Give It Away” and “Swan Swan H” round off the tracklist in a pleasant way. “What If We Give It Away” is a fairly standard type of R.E.M. mid-tempo they could knock out in their sleep at this stage but R.E.M. at their most standard are still good, and the low-key torch song “Flowers of Guatemala” starts off unassumingly but becomes quietly pretty whenever it kicks up its gear a notch. “Swan Swan H” is a bit of a retread from last album’s “Wendell Gee” in terms of being a moody closer (excluding the semi-hidden “Superman”), and while it builds up to something close to lovely towards its end it never quite stands up as proud as it aims to (Bill Berry once quipped that he wished he had not laid a drum track on the song and giving it some thought, it would probably work a lot better without the marching beat). "Superman" is also technically a hidden track tucked away at the end of the album, and in actuality I find that its cheeky surprise appearance works better to close the album with its lighthearted energy than rather serious "Swan Swan H" does.

Ironically, while Pageant has some of R.E.M.‘s wilder stylistic excursions so far, coming after two somewhat more inconsistent albums it’s clear that the band have had a much more focused vision for Pageant in comparison. This translates to a whole lot more confident performance and the highs of this album are some of 80s R.E.M.’s highs overall: the first five songs are basically the peak of the I.R.S.-era R.E.M., delivering one discography classic after another in tight succession. For the first time since Murmur it sounds like the band are forging ahead with a clear idea of what they are doing and where they want to go, and it’s employed to such effect that even with its occasional near-misses it's an essential R.E.M. selection. Those near-misses, too, aren't really a flaw as such: even though the album loses a little of its initial strength and charisma as it loosens up on its second half, R.E.M. are still operating on a high and the line between Life's Rich Pageant being "simply" a great record (as it is, as it stands) and an all-time classic isn't too wide, all things considered. Not to mention that when placed next to the entire back catalogue, Life's Rich Pageant has the biggest grin on its face than any of the albums, powering through its snappy songs with such a force that it's addictively entertaining. Life's Rich Pageant feels like the most essential early R.E.M. album in what it represents in the evolution of their sound and songwriting.

The 1986 I.R.S. Years Vintage re-release bonus tracks are plentiful but very hit and miss, and mostly the latter. There’s a couple of perfunctory covers with Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic” and Everly Brothers’ “Dream (All I Have to Do)”, which are less interesting in practice than they sound in concept (the “Toys in the Attic” cover in particular is a right bore even if R.E.M. covering Aerosmith is a curious idea). Out of the originals “Rotary Ten” is an average instrumental and “Tired of Singing Trouble” is a miniature a cappella snippet whose function is to act as a bridge between the actual album and the bonus tracks, and doesn’t even bear any particular curio value. The only cuts worth of any real interest are the two alternative recordings of the album cuts. “Just a Touch” predates the album version by quite a few years and the early live take here shows some of the minor changes the song’s taken along the way, and the slightly stripped down version of "Swan Swan H" (which still has the drums, in case you were wondering) does underline the strength of the core melody now that the accordion is gone (though sorely missed).

Physically: Same basic deal as with all the other IRS Vintage reissues. The tracklist is (intentionally) muddled up, as it was in the original release - songs in the wrong order, just to be difficult.


DEAD LETTER OFFICE

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1987 5 "Crazy", "Burning Down", "Ages of You"

1) Crazy; 2) There She Goes Again; 3) Burning Down; 4) Voice of Harold; 5) Burning Hell; 6) White Tornado; 7) Toys in the Attic; 8) Windout; 9) Ages of You; 10) Pale Blue Eyes; 11) Rotary Ten; 12) Bandwagon; 13) Femme Fatale; 14) Walter’s Theme; 15) King of the Road; 16) Wolves, Lower; 17) Gardening at Night; 18) Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars); 19) 1,000,000; 20) Stumble; The I.R.S. Years Vintage Edition bonus tracks: 21) Gardening at Night (Acoustic); 22) All the Right Friends

Discards, throwaways and studio injokes. Not the most inspiring b-side collection around.

R.E.M. were never a particularly good b-sides band. They were a very economical group whose recording sessions were carefully planned out and who operated under a full democracy where any member had the option to veto a song, so there was little room for excess material. Many of the rare actual outtakes would be also repurposed into soundtrack cuts and similar "higher profile" purposes, rather than issued on singles. Instead, the majority of their occasional studio b-sides were either ex tempore instrumental jams or cover versions of their personal favourites - throwaway things recorded quickly and often with levity. Peter Buck's liner notes to Dead Letter Office, a collection of single flipsides across the band’s first four albums, say that he always found singles so interesting growing up because only the A-side ever mattered and the b-side could be literally any random rubbish which could be fascinating in their own right, and R.E.M. definitely always leaned onto that notion more than they ever considered b-sides as a serious part of their back catalogue, the way e.g. many UK bands would have.

The songs on Dead Letter Office are - appropriately - largely made out of inessential covers and throwaways, and the same liner notes that praised the value of random off-cuts are also not afraid to lacerate R.E.M.’s own offerings in that regard. Peter Buck’s track-by-track breakdown of Dead Letter Office’s contents are sharp and unafraid to call the band out for effectively churning out intentional filler usually committed to tape in an ad hoc manner. He’s not too wrong either. Dead Letter Office consists mostly of inside jokes that you had to be there for to fully appreciate them, or quickly thrown together bonus material which the band never intended to make anything meaningful out of. Stipe recites the liner notes to a gospel record over the backing track for “7 Chinese Bros.” (“Voice of Harold)”, the band cover Aerosmith just for the sake of it (“Toys in the Attic”), they perform half-satirical originals based on a single idea that amused them (“Burning Hell” is a parodical hard rock song inspired by Buck buying a guitar pedal, “Bandwagon” crams together as many abrupt chord changes as it can fit which is completely impenetrable if you don't have that technical ear), or they simply butcher a golden oldie while completely drunk (“King of the Road”, where you can hear Mills shout the chord changes to Buck and Stipe barely remembers the lyrics). They are all sort of amusing but it’d be an incredible exaggeration to say that any of them is in any way a must listen (regardless of what Stipe says on "Voice of Harold") or a lost treasure. They can be somewhat entertaining at times, but never anything that you would actively want to return to because that half-intentional comedic value just isn't enough to make it a satisfying listen. At worst Dead Letter Office barely registers in any scale, and that's typically when the band do finally play it straight as well: there’s a grand total of three Velvet Underground covers on the album, and as someone who’s never been a fan of the band the songs themselves are by and far the most uninteresting selctions of the bunch, and R.E.M. do not do anything interesting to them either. The “Toys of the Attic” cover is much the same and as wild as the idea of R.E.M. taking on Aerosmith might be, the actual execution is about as bland as you can get with that concept.

There are some things worth mentioning though. “Crazy” is the most inspired cover of the bunch, with the band taking on their peers Pylon and delivering a punchy yelp-along with a cheeky spirit. It’s not just a heck of an earworm, but it’s joyously so: simply a fun, catchy, groovy number, with a killer melody in its chorus that’ll last for ages, courtesy of Pylon of course (it's a really straightforward cover) but yet so perfectly R.E.M. too. “Burning Down” and “Ages of You” are two full-on R.E.M. originals and are in fact partially the same song, with the former having been scrapped and then had its best parts saved and repurposed into the latter. “Ages of You” is the obviously more developed of the two and could easily not just have found itself on a proper album but would have also defended its place reasonably well, with some signature R.E.M. melodies appearing across its bridges. “Burning Down” shares some of those sections and while overall is a bit more obviously an exiled outtake or a near-finished sketch of a song, it’s still more infectious than the bulk of the songs here. The token instrumentals, surf-rocking “White Tornado” and loungey “Rotary Ten” aren’t too bad either, even if they’re very typical R.E.M. instrumental b-sides: that they’re the only ones of their kind here make also help them stand out more than they probably would have in any other context.

The main reason why Dead Letter Office should ever cross anyone’s mind is because of what’s been tacked on to the very end of the CD version, and it’s got nothing to do with the original compilation. After the main tracklist ends you can find the entirety of the (rather great, as attested earlier!) Chronic Town EP, and it’s miles ahead in both quality and vision to anything else on Dead Letter Office. It’s the only vital part of the compilation, and until 2022 it was also the only place you could find the EP on CD, making this an essential purchase for so many R.E.M. fans despite the actual main content. In addition, while the I.R.S. Vintage Years series of re-releases have generally had somewhat ignorable bonus tracks (most of which can be found on this compilation, natch), ironically the ones for Dead Letter Office are actually better than most things in the main album. The acoustic version of “Gardening at Night” is a lovely take on a great song, and the studio outtake version of “All the Right Friends” is a fascinating little thing to have given the actual final recorded version took about two decades to finally appear. It’s a really fun little stormer, even in this early stage, and it’s somewhat surprising it never saw the light of day at the time.

Other than its various bonuses, Dead Letter Office is largely a dud. If there is something revelatory to it, it’s how well it highlights the quirky and lighthearted side of the band which doesn't get thrust into the spotlight all that much all too often. Dead Letter Office does carry a particular (likely intoxicated) charm to it and it’s managed to raise a surprise smile a number of times over the years with its sheer anything-goes mentality. But as actual songs, these are mostly scraps at best and pure filler at worst and though that may be intentional, the occasional goofiness isn't enough to save it from being a largely meandering listening experience between all the haphazard impromptu jams, mostly meandering covers and in-jokes. It's a nice snapshot of the band in the security of their practice space goofing off as just best friends playing music together, but as a collection of music it's completely inessential and borderline pointless, and beyond the surface value laughs it's of little note.

Physically: Bit more interesting than the other IRS Vintage reissues, by way of Buck's track by track commentary as referenced above. Part of the booklet is also dedicated to Chronic Town.


DOCUMENT

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1987 7 "Finest Worksong", "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", "The One I Love"

1) Finest Worksong; 2) Welcome to the Occupation; 3) Exhuming McCarthy; 4) Disturbance at the Heron House; 5) Strange; 6) It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine); 7) The One I Love; 8) Fireplace; 9) Lightnin’ Hopkins; 10) King of Birds; 11) Oddfellows Local 151

Upsizing to stadium size, maybe a little too soon. But what a singles run, right?

R.E.M. go big. The jump between Life’s Rich Pageant and Document is the largest so far between albums in production alone: far from the enthusiastic ramshackle riot of Pageant, Document is super-slick and booming loud, embracing the 80s in all their stadium-sized glory. The production is clean and sharp so that even the smallest of songs could cater to a loud arena. The themes have become similarly clear and precise as Stipe tones down his mystique even more to make Document an obvious reflection of the political landscape at the time. There’s a conscious effort to make Document sound important, both in its themes and just with its general gravitas. This is R.E.M. knowingly making a full leap to the big league.

And that they did. Document features not only the band’s first genuine hit but also their first pop-culturally iconic song. The former is “The One I Love”, a spiteful anti-love song performed like a fiery political fist-pumper: a song that sounds vulnerable in its verses yet rises into a furious chorus built to soar loud and proud, Stipe belting out like he’s never done before while Mills joins to carry the chorus. The latter is of course “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, a wild machine-gun rollercoaster with a ridiculously charming levity and an incredible array of hooks, including so many individual seconds to remember in Stipe’s rapid fire stream of consciousness and the countless different backing vocal lines bouncing off one another. Both songs are famous enough that they don’t need any further introduction or description, but both are also bonafide classics for a reason. “It’s the End of the World” especially so, which will never fail to throw a flurry of excitement whenever it plays, leading into impromptu singalongs wherever it goes: it’s a joyously perfect song and has never lost its shine despite its trailer overusage. The third single off the album, “Finest Worksong”, doesn’t quite share the immortality of the other two but it’s where the R.E.M.’s ambitions for Document show up the clearest and placing it as the very first thing you hear is a clear statement of intent. It’s a huge song, meant to be played with full volume and intended to be a live battle cry. It only gets overshadowed if you compare it directly to the other two songs but on its own it’s a stormer, with Mills’ backing vocals once again stealing the spotlight in the chorus. There are very few songs in the R.E.M. catalogue as colossal as this and "Finest Worksong" doesn't buckle under its size.

The rest of Document, then, is almost tame in comparison: not as bombastic as “Finest Worksong”, not as wild as “It’s the End of the World”, not as impassioned as “The One I Love”. Even the token off-kilter cut is just a slightly out of place cover of Wire’s “Strange”, which mainly merits a mention for Stipe changing the lyrics to address himself and otherwise needlessly takes up space in the tracklist. Still, even if it's not all quite as thrilling as the Three Big Ones, the new style does bear its marks across the album and particularly during the first half of the record, which focuses on those politically-minded rock songs. "Welcome to the Occupation" and "Disturbance at the Heron House" both follow from Life's Rich Pageant's more refinedly muscular moments and punch through with vigour and passion: the former breathessly runs through its verses until Stipe loses his composure and closes the song with anguished yelps, the latter brings back some of that classic jangle and highlights how they're still the same college rock band in their hearts, and both carry on the momentum well. "Exhuming McCarthy" perhaps less so with its borderline twee lightweightness, and though its marriage of the enhanced dynamics with a bubblegum soul can make it a little superfluous compared to everything around it, it mainly just sounds like a good song in the wrong place and time.

But once those big polished fist-pumpers are out of the way, the second half of Document makes a conscious move away from them - and that's Document's secret ace in the sleeve. If it had been just a series of charged rockers it wouldn't be as interesting as an album, as it is now with these quirkier, more experimental cuts tucked away in the back end. “Fireplace” and “Lightnin’ Hopkins” in particular are more in line with what “Finest Worksong” promised all the way in the beginning: almost-anthems with fire burning bright in their belly and a commanding charisma. “Fireplace” sways and tilts with its uneasy rhythm alluringly before breaking down into an extended instrumental section starring a sax going crazy: it’s an unexpected swerve not just in the song but on the entire album, and it makes the song stand out even more beyond its already captivating change of pace. “Lightnin’ Hopkins” meanwhile goes hard - it’s very atypically muscular and beefy for R.E.M. and arguably one of their most outwardly aggressive songs, Berry's frenzied drums almost (almost) invoking a double bass-drum rhythm. Sometimes you forget just how powerfully this band can smash through the gate and "Lightnin' Hopkins'" is such an excellent and exhilirating case for that. “King of Birds” is a slight retread of Reckoning’s “Time After Time”, with a similar march-like beat and a dulcimer part that echoes the vaguely sitar-like guitar lines of its predecessor - there are worse songs to make a spiritual sequel for, and even if it’s not the most exciting of the cuts here it still has flashes of brilliance to it and once again showcases the album's more off-kilter side well. Even as R.E.M. were cleaning themselves up ready to enter the mainstream, they were sure to retain their wild quirkiness.

That leaves us with “Oddfellows Local 151”, a traditionally R.E.M.-like moody closer that never quite grows into anything particularly interesting during its slightly overlong runtime, even its piercing guitar riff threatens to give it an edge. It's a song I could see myself adoring if just something had been slightly changed in it - and that makes it a funnily appropriate fit to close Document. R.E.M. wanted to prove that they could hit it big time while still retaining who they are and holding onto their messages (and if anything, shout those messages louder now that they had a growing audience) and, well, that they did - but also despite their big gestures it doesn't sound like they were quite ready to fully jump into the world that they were eyeing up. Document is many things: a political wake-up call, a suite of stadium bangers, a cautiously experimental move at playing with different sounds and ideas, at times even a throwback nod to their early days. Not all of those mash together and after a self-assured start the rest of the album becomes a bit of a hodgepodge. Now that doesn't stop Document from being really good: it just makes it harder to approach and perhaps to enjoy as a whole. It's one of the R.E.M. albums I revisit the least, even if everytime I do I have a great time with it - but the more you repeat it during those revisits, the more you can see the little cracks under the covers. Nothing that a simple patch work wouldn't fix (ditch "Strange", run through a couple of the songs one more time...), but perhaps it's also proof that this shiny contemporary sound was never going to be the way R.E.M. should go about embracing their growing audiences and that they should figure out their own unique way of going about it. Which they would shortly do.

Physically: You can tell this is an old CD issue because it comes with the once-standard page on how CDs work and what their properties are. The booklet is otherwise just as slim as with the IRS Vintage reissues, the band at this stage simply didn't include much (largely due to the vinyl-focused releases of the day). As to why I don't have the IRS Vintage version of this... the shop I bought this from back in the day didn't have that one!


GREEN

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1988 8 "You Are the Everything", "World Leader Pretend", "Orange Crush"

1) Pop Song 89; 2) Get Up; 3) You Are the Everything; 4) Stand; 5) World Leader Pretend; 6) The Wrong Child; 7) Orange Crush; 8) Turn You Inside-Out; 9) Hairshirt; 10) I Remember California; 11) The Eleventh Untitled Song

Palette expansion. The beginning of the golden age of R.E.M. and the birth of many of their modern-day traits.

Green has a very strong, incredibly evocative association with summer for me. Specifically long summer evenings: the calm and quiet ones where the world is starting to slow down to the night but the sun is still up in the horizon and the air is still warm (other Nordic people can relate). That particular seasonal stillness is captured perfectly within Green, much of it due to specific personal reasons (guess the season I first got into Green and the time of the day I found myself binging on it) but the album invites the mental images readily itself. It’s at times upbeat and perky, other times soothing and always, always very lush. It’s a sonically rich step for R.E.M.: building on from what came before but sounding practically reborn.

Green is of course also R.E.M.’s big jump to a major label, from I.R.S. to Warner. It’s a strange record to make a mainstream entrance with, going a little all over the place and most of the time somewhere that the band had only ever dabbled in before. Warner graced R.E.M. with brand new recording possibilities and the band took advantage of this. Green’s theme became one of everyone trying out different roles, testing new instruments and introducing wildly different ideas one after another. The band effectively abandoned the concept of each member having a rigid role here in favour of expanding the scope of what the band as a whole could do and evolve into. The hidden track “The Eleventh Untitled Song” goes as far as it gets, as every player in the band swaps instruments on a whim (Buck’s drumming in particular has a rather unorthodox rhythm that Berry wouldn't even think to touch), and while Green as a whole isn’t quite as radical that same “try anything” mentality runs throughout. At the same time the band continued to pay more attention to the actual recording and production of the songs they were coming up with, following on from the intentional move in that direction with the last two albums but viewing the task from a different angle. Instead of simply a sonical boost, the songs of Green come with an increased amount of layers, more atmospheric touches and a more orchestrated nature, taking a markedly different tone to the more straightforward approach of the earlier years. It wouldn’t be too far off to say that the expanded soundworld that the band now had the confidence and means to pull off directly affected the songwriting and the style the band adopted for Green as well: the possibilities guided the directions that the band could take.

That said, it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Green’s style lies because it’s one of the most varied collections of songs in R.E.M.’s catalogue. The political consciousness which featured heavily on Document in particular hasn’t gone anywhere and R.E.M. made sure to use their growing spotlight to speak about the state of the country and the world whenever they could. Green drills into it right down to its environmental title, and as opposed to the more observatory tones of their prior political material the likes of “Orange Crush” and “World Leader Pretend” feel like actual protest songs: one in the shape of a sharp call-to-arms anthem which perfects stadium rocker ideas of Document, and the other a stupendously gorgeous and darkly foreboding mid-tempo that has the band’s enriched sonic aesthetics right on the forefront. But then that political consciousness is right next to the most ludicrously pop set of songs R.E.M. had committed to tape yet. Sometime during the sessions for Green the band really got into writing bubblegum pop songs and in fact, that’s the first impression Green makes when the unashamedly catchy and upbeat “Pop Song 89” and “Get Up” kick off the album. “Stand” on the other hand is one of the most ridiculous things R.E.M. ever committed to tape, a self-aware Sesame Street sing-along with nonsensical but awfully catchy lyrics, an airheadedly upbeat feel and a wah-wah solo that goes down in history as one of the silliest things Buck has played. It’s absolutely stupid but it’s also genuinely brilliant, regardless of how deep its tongue is lodged in its cheek.

The lush nature of Green is what ties the album’s wildly reaching strains together. Whether Stipe is shouting in the megaphone, rhyming a ditty or softly crooning like he does in so many of the album’s quieter moments placed in-between, Green is blossoming in details. Its sound has depth and while the styles differ, the productional approach unites the album’s various ideas. There’s some cunning tracklist sequencing going on too. The jangly pop is largely located in the first steps while the moodier or more muscular songs are left towards the end, including the excellent proto-grunge headbanger “Turn You Inside-Out” and the majestically brooding “I Remember California” which has seen none of the light the album started with; the center of the album, then, is a sequence of mood pieces that act as the bridge between the two extremes. The occasional cross-pollination between the sections helps bridge the gaps and the more acoustic songs act as the glue between the more disparate sections, with "World Leader Pretend" sitting in the middle bringing together parts of everything (the acoustic sound, the more impassioned tone and the richness of its hooks and melodies). Green becomes a cohesive whole, running from idea to idea but making the transition sound natural across the whole stretch.

On a completely personal level, it’s neither the pop or the politics which defines Green but it’s that subtler middle section. It’s where the spirit of the summer’s calm takes over and the songs that best capture it are the ones where the band sit down and immerse into the rich sound world they could now create. “The Wrong Child” and “Hairshirt” are wonderful mood pieces and a precursor for the next couple of albums hidden in plain sight, largely devoid of percussion but glimmering with so many other sounds and a beautiful yearning. The already mentioned “World Leader Pretend” is a protest song at heart but more in its home with the other gentle beasts, full of as much heartache as it is fury and featuring one of Stipe’s most arresting vocal deliveries in its bridge as he breaks the facade of its otherwise coldly chilling tone and breaks out in an emotional furore. Most importantly, there’s “You Are the Everything”, not just one of R.E.M.’s greatest unspoken deep cuts but one of their very best songs in general. It’s a pastoral elegy of pure beauty and longing, Stipe’s voice quivering as the instruments swell into the midsummer night, Buck strumming his mandolin gently to Mills’ keyboards. It’s a stunner full of heart and soul, and to me the pinnacle point of what Green represents: the melodic richness and the captivating mood, and the sun setting down in the July sky. That “You Are the Everything” starts with sampled sounds of nature is just perfectly fitting.

With the wider palette they equip and the wild abandon that they throw themselves with into any idea, R.E.M. show that they've fully mastered their raw talent at this stage. If Document had a sense of growing pains to it as the band consciously tried to become something bigger than they were, on Green they reach those ambitions gracefully and naturally. They are a clearly transformed band on Green and in fact, it marks the line in the sand where R.E.M. transformed from a great band to an all-time legend. It’s a very curious album full of mix-and-match sidetracks, but the band weave it into a work that stands a whole from the bouncy beginnings to muscular guitars and fragile laments. It's the biggest leap yet in their development and in showcasing all these various facets of themselves so confidently, they've also discovered how to put them together both seamlessly and brilliantly.

Physically: Jewel case with a fold-out booklet, featuring a lot of largely unexciting visuals consisting of trees and camo patterns... and for the first time ever, a lyric! Stipe refused for the longest time to feature his lyrics in the liner notes, but the words for "World Leader Pretend" are printed in the Green booklet, emphasising the importance of the song and the lyric for the band (and it helps to make all the puns and homophones clear).


OUT OF TIME

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1991 9 "Losing My Religion", "Belong", "Country Feedback"

1) Radio Song; 2) Losing My Religion; 3) Low; 4) Near Wild Heaven; 5) Endgame; 6) Shiny Happy People; 7) Belong; 8) Half a World Away; 9) Texarkana; 10) Country Feedback; 11) Me in Honey

Wildly flailing in every direction, with numerous sound experiments and genre exercises. And yet, somehow this became a hit. And moreso, a real classic in general.

What a bizarre album to become the one that turned R.E.M. into one of the biggest bands on Earth. Out of Time is a borderline messy jumble of different styles and various kinds of experiments, a band at the crossroads of development with the intent to go in all directions. It had two big hit singles, of which one is not just one of the most legendary songs of the 90s but a completely timeless, iconic classic - an otherwordly confessional with a chorus so subtle that it doesn’t even really exist, a song that genuinely sounds magical and unique. Meanwhile, the other one is a silly novelty bubblegum pop song. Not that the rest of the album is any more consistent, either: there is a general trend of the band picking up acoustic instruments throughout the album but between spoken word jams, gentle instrumentals, funk rock, saccharine pop songs and heartrending laments, Out of Time never stays still in one place.

The wild movements signal a desire to grow, and Out of Time is a major milestone for R.E.M. in that regard. This is where the pieces really begin to fall in place, after the groundwork that Green paved. Green - itself a very varied album - generally acts as Out of Time’s blueprint. The lush sound that first appeared on the predecessor is taken even further as the band’s arrangements begin to grow ever more detailed and masterful, and the taste for a less hurried tone that Green foreshadowed is now the norm. But a lot has changed within the band as well, with everyone more confidently stepping to the spotlight and showcasing their individual skills and creativity: expanded instrumentation, casual role swaps and general do-anything mentality give Out of Time a richer palette and really highlights the different band members in turn. This is especially true for the two Mikes. Mills had sung the lead vocal on a few covers prior to now, but on Out of Time he gets two R.E.M. originals to sing on prominent display. The honey-sweet, effortlessly pretty “Near Wild Heaven” even became a single, which further underlined the band’s confidence in their own changes. The other song, the americana rocker “Texarkana”, arguably shows off Mills’ vocals even more confidently.

It’s Stipe, though, who undergoes the greatest metamorphosis on Out of Time. Where he once mumbled his way through the songs and intentionally hid his voice among the instruments, after several years of taking more confident steps towards being the frontman of the band he’s now completely embraced the microphone: he boldly pours his heart out with his vocal performance, with a sharpened lyrical pen as he perfects his own style after playing around with how to express himself for years. Throughout the album he channels a gamut of emotions from heartrending to lighthearted and he always comes across like he's reaching personally out to the listener. It’s on Out of Time where Stipe becomes one of the greatest frontmen in rock. R.E.M. were about to take over the world and Stipe sounds like he’s ready for the role.

The jumble of sounds is the outcome of the band being high on their newly-strengthened confidence and the resulting fearlessness, but it’s precisely that confidence which makes such an odds and sods collection work so well. R.E.M. have discovered new peaks to their creativity and are riding them with abandon, putting everything of themselves behind each song and revelling in the results. Credit to the production and general background work where it’s due: cohesive sound elements run through Out of Time to make best friends out of funk rock anthems (the exuberant "Radio Song", and kudos to the band for having the balls to open the entire album with one of its most outlandish statements), existential crises and shiny happy pop songs, and the carefully thought out sequencing is genuinely experience-enricheningly good here, its extreme-flicking whiplashes exciting rather than distracting. The rich, warm tones running throughout production also make the album sound instantly welcoming and full of heart, and it’s used to back one of R.E.M.’s greatest sets of songs. That statement includes the instrumental interlude “Endgame” in all of its serenity as well as the pariah singalong “Shiny Happy People”, which is a genuinely brilliant song where the band embrace their love for simple and sweet pop songs and reach something genuinely heartwarmingly - and infectiously - upbeat. “Losing My Religion” – rather obviously – towers over everything: it’s a one of a kind of a song, a truly jawdropping piece of music where everything, from the arrangement to the melodies, the lyrics, the performance and the sheer emotion it evokes is spellbinding. Everything considered though, the rest of the album isn’t overshadowed by it at all. “Country Feedback” is the other bonafide classic of the set, as Stipe purges his guts over a desert dirge ballad in a fashion that sticks to your mind for good, delivering his rawest performance put to tape; the stark, emotionally detached "Low" earlier on is practically a teaser for "Country Feedback", bubbling up all that same emotion but leaving it simmer in a tense dark night of the soul moment of disquiet. The disarmingly gorgeous mood moment “Half a World Away” and half spoken word, half wordless majestic soar of “Belong” have always been big personal favourites out of the less mentioned songs, and “Texarkana” suits Mills’ softer vocal tone so perfectly that it makes a convincing argument that he could have been a frontman in his own right.

Despite all that, Out of Time still feels almost understated and underspoken about, but in a way you can understand why that is: it doesn’t have a consistent stylistic angle of much of the band’s more praised works, and outside “Losing My Religion” and “Country Feedback” it lacks in the canonised standout moments. It has all the characteristics of a transitional album, the theoretically awkward step from the 80s indie heroes to Automatic for the People’s acoustic laments. Yet every single song has been crafted with such love and dedication that it transcends that notion and becomes a fully-fledged, fully-fleshed piece of great work on its own, defined by its wild swings everywhere but always keeping the heart in the same place. It’s a slightly bizarre, messy album, but it’s wrapped in homey warmth and wonderful tunes. It’s not an obvious classic perhaps, but nonetheless a brilliant moment for R.E.M.

Out of Time’s name is rather literal - it was chosen when the band was running out of time to name the album as it was about to go to print - but you can also read it little more interpretively and it works just as well. There’s a timeless quality to the songs contained within, where they don’t feel like they’re tied to any particular decade or even a moment in time in R.E.M.'s own story: both thanks to the still-strong production as well as the songs that themselves are outside any kind of temporal bubble (apart from perhaps “Radio Song”, which is great fun and positively striking but also very early 90s). It’s a beautiful album and completely evergreen, ageless and nothing like anything before or since – utterly unique without even trying to reach for it. It’s the album that raised R.E.M. into well deserved stardom, the one where they certified their status as one of the greatest of all time and it contains one of the greatest songs ever recorded. The band made better albums, sure, but that’s incredible in its own self. Out of Time is nothing short of a classic.

Physically: Another jewel case, another fold-out booklet. Lots of seemingly unrelated art across this one, including a couple of comic pages hammering down the "out of time" element. Great band photo though.


AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1992 10 "Drive", "Try Not to Breathe", "Man on the Moon"

1) Drive; 2) Try Not to Breathe: 3) The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite: 4) Everybody Hurts; 5) New Orleans Instrumental No. 1; 6) Sweetness Follows; 7) Monty Got a Raw Deal; 8) Ignoreland; 9) Star Me Kitten; 10) Man on the Moon; 11) Nightswimming; 12) Find the River

The quintessential R.E.M. experience. Somber but not sad, grand but intimate, and a masterpiece of songwriting and arrangement.

The two albums preceding Automatic for the People - Green and Out of Time - saw R.E.M. broadening their scope and actively pushing their sound forward. One of the defining characteristics for those albums is their variance, full of stylistic experiments and the overall sound dominated by the band introducing new elements. They are classic albums in their own right, and a great deal of their quality is due to how fearlessly the band followed every instinct and idea they had. Automatic for the People, released roughly a year after Out of Time (made easier by the band’s decision not to tour in-between), is the logical conclusion: the new depth the band now had in their sound utilised for a cohesive collection of songs rather than every single separate idea.

R.E.M. cemented their legacy with the result.

One of the things I’ve harped on about on my R.E.M. reviews - and one I’ll probably continue to mention in my future ones - is how R.E.M. have always been masters of choosing the perfect opening song that lays out a statement for the album and signals its intentions right from the start. “Drive” once again does the same: the quiet acoustic base, the increasing dynamics that take the song from minor beginnings to something unpredictable and grand, and the orchestral touch which gives the song its grandeur are all elements that replicate throughout Automatic for the People in varying degrees. But the key thing is the mood: the heavy melancholy that follows the track around, from Stipe’s low drawl to the slow crawl of the music. R.E.M. haven’t been unfamiliar with a moody streak but “Drive” makes it its signature element. Automatic is an album that lets the atmospheric side of the band’s writing take the wheel, and focuses on setting a particular contemplative mood.

Don’t mistake that for sadness. Automatic is obsessed with mortality and loss, literal or metaphorical - death and fleeting time feature throughout the album’s imagery, and even when nothing is ticking away the characters in the songs are still obsessed with their own personal legacies and what will eventually be left behind. But the overall atmosphere is more elegiac than anything: finding the small moments of hope during the darkest times and celebrating life where you can. “Try Not to Breathe” is literally about the last thoughts of an old man dying but with Buck’s gorgeous guitar work and Mills and Berry’s heavenly harmonies, it sounds like a song of praise rather than a lament. Despite the somber tones of the record the band frequently let the songs soar away from the melancholy within.

In fact, I’d make a case for that Automatic for the People is ultimately a carefully joyous album, even if that joy is at times reflected through one kind of sadness or another. Take “Everybody Hurts”, the big break-out power ballad that’s become one of the de facto sad bastard songs in popular culture, but which is ultimately a shoulder to lean against and a helping hand to pick you up, more concerned in conquering the melancholy than dwelling in it. “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” are laced with nostalgia but it’s happy that these moments in life happened rather than being sad about them now having gone. This kind of uplifting melancholy is at the center of Automatic and makes it a wistful yet ultimately celebratory experience. This also helps it tie its various songs together and makes everything fit into the whole. The hyper-happy, stream-of-consciousness jangle pop of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, which riffs on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and is so upbeat that Stipe breaks into a giggle halfway through a line at one point, initially comes off like another style-shattering stand-out along the lines of “Stand” or “Shiny Happy People”, but finds a cohesive footing with the other songs through the warmth that beats even within the album’s darkest moments. Similarly “Man on the Moon” is the album’s great culmination point in this regard, picking up all the strands of nostalgia and loss and bundling them into a life-affirming anthem that’s close to a catharsis for everything before.

Automatic gets the grace it needs to balance all these emotional building blocks via the expansion of sound and increased detail of arrangement R.E.M. had worked on during the past couple of albums, forming an appropriate musical backing to match Stipe. The general, more acoustic-based approach hasn’t changed much from Out of Time and effectively pegs Automatic as the former’s sibling album, and similarly that core is used as a launchpad for an expanded palette. The intricate orchestral sections (arranged by the former Led Zeppelin John Paul Jones) give the music wings, and in particular the moments when they suddenly appear during “Drive” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” are incredible flashes of brilliance that change the tone of the songs in an instant. The expanded instrumental section puts more weight than ever into Mills’ piano and keyboard playing, with several of the songs carried by Mills’ delicate playing, while Buck’s increased armory of string instruments keep his part of the sound varied throughout, flicking between styles from distorted guitars to gently plucked mandolin. Berry and Mills also go all-out with their harmonies, working together over multiple songs to counter Stipe’s drawl and their backing vocals become integral to the songs’ impact, be it call-and-answer or wordless melodies. The level of detail in the carefully arranged layers is stupendous and Automatic expects you to pay attention to it, hiding intricacies even in its quietest moments (the countdown in the beginning of “Drive” took me an embarrassing amount of years to hear). Automatic is honestly beautiful both on a technical level and in its arrangements, and the sound they have chosen for the album give it its vulnerable, intimate warmth. Even the instrumental interlude (“New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”) resonates, evoking that quiet solemn moment late at night when staring through the window into the sleeping world and everything is still in life for a while.

That even the most obvious filler cut among the tracklist can bring up an emotional reaction like that is to the band’s credit, and underlines why Automatic for the People is such a special album. It’s a stunningly beautiful album, sometimes tragic and sometimes uplifting, but always one that tugs for a reaction straight from the heart. The music has an inherent richness and warmth to it which make it emotionally charged, and while Stipe’s lyrics tell very specific stories for most of Automatic, there’s a quality to them and the words he uses which feel like they manage to condense something very integral to the entire human experience within some verses and choruses. And of course, the songs themselves and the writing. The layers of Automatic aren’t used just to place instruments together but to add up strong melodies and gorgeous musical moments together. The songwriting on Automatic is gold on its own, right down to its curveballs: the grunge-lite “Ignoreland” gives the album a fire in its belly just when it needed one, and “Star Me Kitten” is a genuine delight whether you take it on face value as a dreamy lullaby and find amusement on how its soothing surface is matched with one of Stipe’s unashamedly thirstiest lyrics. You don’t really even need the intricacies: strip these songs down to their acoustic core and they’d be touching as is. “Nightswimming” is just piano, strings and Stipe and yet it’s enormously powerful and the kind of thing that happy tears were made for, and the relatively straightforward mid-tempo alt rocker “Monty Got a Raw Deal” is arguably the album’s best kept secret, a parallel universe hit anthem dressed up in modest garbs, navigating somewhere between swaggering and mystical with a one-two punch chorus hooks with both Buck’s simple guitar melody and Mills’ backing vocals. It’s a set of incredible songs, and a blunt statement like that is probably the best way to put it across - arguably better than a lot of my usual waffling about.

These songs are so incredible in fact that Automatic is among my all-time favourites. Unlike many other albums in that small category, Automatic hasn’t become so because it tied itself to one particular part of my life and became an important channel of expression forevermore; instead, it’s a relationship that’s grown from the enchanted initial listens to this state where I find myself emotionally rejuvenated whenever the album has finished playing. Even without the personal bias Automatic is a stunning album, an example of a band at their prime in a remarkable creative spree, following their instincts flawlessly. It’s the kind of concentration of quality that every artist aspires to make and which takes select creative and contextual sparks in order to happen. Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe not only managed to strike those sparks but made them so strong the warmth from them is still there each listen. They managed to contain something essential about life into their album; through that, it’s integrally tied into mine.

Physically: You guessed it, a jewel case and a fold-out booklet. The emphasis this time is on a number of stylish band member photos shot by Anton Corjbin in his trademark black and white. R.E.M. were making themselves more visible after years of downplaying their presence.


MONSTER

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1994 8 "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", "Crush with Eyeliner", "Bang and Blame"

1) What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?; 2) Crush with Eyeliner; 3) King of Comedy; 4) I Don’t Sleep, I Dream; 5) Star 69; 6) Strange Currencies; 7) Tongue; 8) Bang and Blame; 9) I Took Your Name; 10) Let Me In; 11) Circus Envy; 12) You

Glam! Sleaze! Fuzz pedals! Riffs! And a whole load of great and surprisingly conflicted songs hiding underneath the loud textures.

By 1994, R.E.M. had become a grand success story with critical and commercial acclaim pouring from everywhere, but very atypically they had done this without touring for their two recent hit albums. What had started as a temporary hiatus turned into an extended studio venture where the band didn’t feel the need to restrain themselves to a four-piece live setup. The spark of life for Monster was R.E.M.’s plan to return to the live setting and to go with it, after two relatively calmer albums, have a record more suitable for the stage. They’d become a signature band for the 90s alternative rock movement but without much of the whole ‘rock’ part of it, but that was about to change.

Monster isn’t quite as straightforward as its idea of a rock 'n’ riff record (or as someone on the internet once put it, the album where Peter Buck discovers the fuzz pedal) would seem to be at first glance. The elaborate string arrangements and acoustic guitars have been pushed off from the way of more and even more electric guitars, but when Monster is described as a rock record, it’s just as much an album about rock and roll. It’s full of cocksure rock star posturing, the kind where cool shades and suggestive poses pave way for trashing hotel rooms, with a hint of detached irony you’d expect from a rock band in the 90s. The more you familiarise yourself with Monster, the more apparent it is that the album openly embraces that semi-cliched rock star bravado, both honestly as well as on a meta level.

It goes far enough that it feels like straightforward escapism for the band. Despite their recent success R.E.M. were in fact in a bad shape at the time, culminating in a literal (obviously temporary) split during the sessions. Monster’s masquerade act is almost like deliberately moving away from what being in R.E.M. was meant to be like, running away from the fame by being something completely different. Michael Stipe, a known introvert, had turned into one of the world’s most known rock stars over the last couple of years and his lyrics on Monster are frequently written from the point of view of lust-driven, brashly egomaniac characters so at odds with his usual self that initially it can be downright jarring. The grunge-esque posturing and relentless walls of fuzz are deliberately exaggerated and over-the-top, almost as an act against the people who joined the band’s followers with the previous albums. Occasionally Monster seems to acknowledge this - one of the unused song titles listed in the liner notes is “Yes, I Am Fucking With You” after all - but the lines between R.E.M. the rock band and R.E.M. the Conceptual Rock Band are constantly blurred.

Approach it from whichever angle you will, Monster acts as a big reminder that actually, R.E.M. can be a real strong rock band when they want to. Buck’s guitar approach here is relatively straightforward but he knows what he’s doing with all the fuzz and distortion, and still scatters the occasional neat little detail here and there like the little “fills” of “King of Comedy”. Mills’ bass actually ends up taking most of the melodic leads this time. which slots in just fine with his style. The songs themselves are more basic than on most R.E.M. albums but the focus is on the right parts: make each section hook you in and hit you with a good musical muscle. Just as importantly, Monster is a really fun album, regardless of the mental health of its creators or the meta-side of its lyrics. It’s irresistibly rock and roll, sometimes in a knowingly dumb way: full of swagger and posture, glam winks on top of groovy bass riffs and walls of loud guitars. Stipe’s characters here may mostly be sleazebags but he performs them with such bravado that it’s hard to resist their rock star charm. The tunes are bouncy and filled with all kinds of tongue-in-cheek twists and details from particularly fun backing vocal cameos to little musical tidbits that make the songs bounce and come alive. And with straightforwardness comes a certain kind of strength in simplicity: focus on instant hook choruses and effectively snappy verses, which lend the songs a power of their own when done this well.

Most of Monster is made out of songs built from the same kind of loud guitar walls with a hint of a groove leading the rhythm underneath, but you’d be surprised how much variance the band squeeze out of the same elements. The swaggering “Crush With Eyeliner” and statement-of-intent like “I Took Your Name” are most exemplary of what Monster tries to go for, but you’ve got off-shoots like the garage punk-like “Star 69” which utilises the same building blocks for a completely different mood. Lead single “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” comes closest to a more typical R.E.M. cut pushed through a fuzz filter and has that infectious hit quality to it, and it’s a great song, but as a contrast you’ve got hypnotic deep cuts like “Bang and Blame” and the cold and mechanical “King of Comedy” which are far from sing-along crowd-pleasers. They’re among the album’s best though, and “Bang and Blame” in particular is a little masterpiece: it’s largely guided by Mills’ bass with Buck taking a shockingly minimalist guitar direction to contrast the rest of the album, which already gives it a strangely unnerving disposition when in context, but the way the song tweaks its verses with little additional instrumental parts and how the simple but effective chorus breaks the tension down are almost ingenius.

Even slow cuts like the torchlight anthem “Strange Currencies” or the moody swivel of “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” operate largely by the same standards as rest of the album. “Tongue” is the big outlier for the entire album, with its slow dance comedown vibes and fragile falsetto. It’s a very bittersweet song, full of ache yet somehow sounding really adorable, lyrics full of disgust but presented in a song that’s musically ideal for tender cuddling. Out of the quieter songs it’s the big standout, but it’s hard to say whether it’s the best one or if that title belongs to “Let Me In”, which is a polar opposite musically. “Let Me In” is the one part of Monster where R.E.M. drop all antics and sound completely genuine - tragically, it’s due to grief. It’s their eulogy to Kurt Cobain, a close friend of the whole band, and it’s as devastating as you’d expect. The shoegaze-like atmospherics, full of distortion and noise only broken by faint other elements like light percussion and a simple keyboard melody, do little to hide the band’s grief. It’s an arresting song, and amidst all the fun it’s a bit of a reality check to how the band was genuinely feeling at the time. And to some sequencing credit, Monster doesn’t do a 180 after it, with “Circus Envy” sounding more muted compared to the other direct rock cuts and the closer “You” curls up into a claustrophobic, slow-burning mood drop of a closer, far from the rock and roll feel-good stroll the album started out with.

And what an intriguing album it is. Monster's nature, with all of its stylistic subversions and sudden sonic transformations, makes it one of the most conceptually curious parts of R.E.M.’s discography and something far deeper than its more straightforward tendencies and fashionably grungy sound give it credit to. That alone makes it interesting, but what rarely gets said is just how tight a listen it is. Compared to the previous few it’s downright basic in its approach, but R.E.M. nail down those basics: while musically the album might consist of little more than loud electric vibes and snappy choruses, they’re pulled off really damn well on Monster. Each song is a standout of some sort and contributes something unique to the whole, and they’re all infectious in a way you want a muscular rock song to be like. Or to put it as directly as the album presents itself, in the end Monster’s qualities boil down to a very simple thing: a band in their peak performing great songs with immense gusto refreshing - if a bit strange and potentially utterly false - sense of fun.

Physically: The CD copy I've got of Monster is one of the great tragedies of my collection. The album is supposed to come with a bright orange spine/disc holder, which is beautifully vivid and stands out incredibly flamboyantly. And mine did too, except the CD hooks had completely shattered from day one. I replaced the orange section with a generic black one so I could keep the CD still, and over the years I've lost the original. In terms of liner notes, another fold-out with mostly band photos. There's a couple of pages of seemingly random words and sentences; as alluded to in the main review, they're working titles and demo names for songs written during the sessions, sometimes with more than one name for the same song. Would love to know what "Stupidest Song Ever Penned" sounded like.


NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1996 9 "New Test Leper", "E-Bow the Letter", "Bittersweet Me"

1) How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us; 2) The Wake-Up Bomb; 3) New Test Leper; 4) Undertow; 5) E-Bow the Letter; 6) Leave; 7) Departure; 8) Bittersweet Me; 9) Be Mine; 10) Binky the Doormat; 11) Zither; 12) So Fast, So Numb; 13) Low Desert; 14) Electrolite

A road trip that arguably does the best job possible in distilling the very essence of R.E.M. and their many varied forms under the covers of one studio album.

R.E.M.’s move to a more electrified direction in the mid-90s had an infamous aftermath. With the style shift inspired by a desire to go on stage again the band naturally embarked on an extended world tour following Monster, which in hindsight turned out to be a terrible decision. The tour was plagued by a number of problems throughout its run, including a number of health issues within the band which culminated in Bill Berry’s brain aneurysm, leaving him to retire the band after recovery for the sake of his own physical well-being. The incident gave the era an ominous end that often overshadows the period’s big positive: the band’s greatly increased creativity. The band had a lot of songs coming out, and the audience were treated each night to at least one song that hadn’t yet seen an official release. R.E.M. had never really managed to fully capture their live energy in studio despite their best efforts earlier on, and eventually someone came up with the idea of why bother trying to replicate when you could just record those news songs as they happened. New Adventures in Hi-Fi was released during the Monster tour and is a curious mixture of a live and studio record, featuring a set of brand new songs recorded throughout the tour in soundchecks and on stage, audience noise mixed to nothing, with a handful of brand new studio recordings scattered within. It was a brand new studio album as much as it was a road trip recollection, with travel photos and place names adorning the liner notes, and it is about as unpolished as R.E.M. could be at the time.

New Adventures acts much like a road trip too, traveling around and spotting new sights along the way - in sound it’s one of R.E.M.’s most varied. The body of the songs is still very heavily guitar-driven as per the band’s general guideline at the time, but there’s a marked move past Monster’s walls of fuzz into a more freewheeling, natural direction, shuffling through various R.E.M. traits of the past but with a kick in the backbone and a rawer tone. When the band do stray from the central sound, they go over and beyond: there’s absolutely nothing on the rest of the album that sounds like the piano-led casual stroll “Electrolite”, the deeply atmospheric “E-Bow the Letter” and the melancholy Western drawl of “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” (which completely blows away my general theory that each R.E.M. album starter is a perfect descriptor for the rest of the record), and they don’t even sound like each other. And yet, they make perfect sense in the context because of how wild-spirited and lively New Adventures in general is (hilariously, these are also three of the album’s four singles).

The idea to capture R.E.M. alive in their natural habitat also has the trait of making it clear how great a rock band they really were. While they very obviously always operated within that wide genre net, you could rarely call them exemplary of what we think about when we imagine what a rock band is like: being initially too gentle for it in the early days and then obstructed by the arrangement choices of the turn of the 90s, and even the hyper-rock of Monster was so over-the-top it could come off parodical. This time, due to the live atmosphere around most of New Adventures and how everyone is playing together simultaneously, not only does their beefed-up stage sound show up in all its strength but also the energy and chemistry of the context have been captured perfectly, and through it R.E.M. soar. New Adventures is R.E.M.’s most energetic album if only because of the power the band share between each other - but speedy powerhouses like “So Fast, So Numb”, “Departure” and “The Wake-Up Bomb” exemplify that energy literally as well. It’s a dumb thing to say from a pseudo-live album but it feels alive, every song running electrified and everyone’s performance amped up.

Indeed, if Monster saw the band answering their reputation as alternative rock champions by posing as an archetypal rock band, then this is R.E.M. answering for that moniker genuinely. They tone down some of Monster’s eccentricities and bring back the signature R.E.M.-tone, but keep the fire under their feet. “Bittersweet Me” sounds like a classic 90s rock song right from the first listen and is full of the yearning and ache while still having that swagger and cool around it. “Be Mine” on the other hand is a stadium torchlight moment built for the band’s growing crowds - complete with an exploding kick and guitar rev-ups right near the end - but it has a vulnerability, a warm human touch that still makes it feel intimate. “Undertow” is all churning guitar noise and pounding drums, exploding as it sees fit. At times it’s genuinely intense: the seven-minute “Leave” is the band’s longest song overall and it spends nearly all of that length winding itself more and more tense, stuck in its own dark musical loop while Michael’s voice grows more and more desperate. The era had its darker underbelly with the band’s fatigue and internal tensions resulting from it, and “Leave” is a reminder of it lurking in the background.

With the twists and turns it takes and how well it showcases the band themselves, New Adventures in Hi-Fi actually comes across as a quintessential R.E.M. album, in a way. It shows so many of the band’s sides from the rowdy to the intimate, the dark and the light, and the quirky sense of humour and the emotional sincerity, that it’s like a self-composed best of mixtape, representing the band in a nutshell - especially with their strengths both in studio and stage environment presented organically together, blending into one another. Just to hammer the point, among all the other excellent tracks there are a couple of integral cornerstone songs for the band. One is “New Test Leper” which is arguably the most R.E.M.-like song ever conceived, the one song that defines their signature sound and all the elements that make it from Buck’s jangles to Mills’ characteristic bass, paired with a gorgeous melody and an emotional charge that make it a fantastic song in general. Another is “E-Bow the Letter”, a haunting semi-spoken word piece guided by the ethereal sound of the titular gadget and backed by Patti Smith’s world-weary vocals, with a sonic richness that could only come from studio (it’s one of the few songs here recorded in a traditional environment). It’s the sound of every insomniac night spent staring through windows, every last stretch of a long journey, every moment of introspection and eventual flicker to a state of calming still. The verses pull you under the waves, the choruses bounce back upon through Buck’s chiming guitar riff. If it’s not R.E.M.’s best song it’s tied with whatever its biggest competitor is. It’s a phenomenal song - and of course, amusingly enough, a complete break from rest of New Adventures both in sound and spirit.

There’s plenty of other great moments too - particular favourites include the cheekily sex-obsessed Monster leftover “Binky the Doormat”, the impossibly feel-good “Electrolite” that always makes the world a little better and the hypnotic, unique shuffle of “How the West Was Won”, all which are completely different from one another and shine in wholly different ways. The batting average is very, very high here, with the only real dent being the short throwaway interlude “Zither”, and even that’s pleasant for what it is. Thus, New Adventures in Hi-Fi is like a parade of triumph, and it’s appropriately so given it closes off an era, even if completely by accident and not in the happiest of circumstances. With Berry’s departure sneakily lurking ahead, New Adventures is a convenient encapsulation of everything that came before musically, a summing up of the band. It is more a continuation than a re-definition in its nature and thus not necessarily an obvious stand-out in the band’s discography, but it’s slyly a classic in its own right: if it’s like a victory lap, it’s one that’s well in due. There’d be a change after this album, not for worse but for different nonetheless, and New Adventures is a brilliant and fitting send-off for the band as four-piece.

Physically: Jewel case and a fold-out booklet once more, with a ton of road trip photography in line with the cover. The band shot at the diner is one of my favourite R.E.M. photos. The credits also go in detail as to how each song was recorded, live, in soundcheck or in studio.


UP

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
1998 10 "Walk Unafraid", "Daysleeper", "Falls to Climb"

1) Airportman; 2) Lotus; 3) Suspicion; 4) Hope; 5) At My Most Beautiful; 6) The Apologist; 7) Sad Professor; 8) You’re in the Air; 9) Walk Unafraid; 10) Why Not Smile; 11) Daysleeper; 12) Diminished/I’m Not Over You; 13) Parakeet; 14) Falls to Climb

Channeling their internal confusion and melancholy through electronic elements and noise textures, R.E.M. begin anew and create their most ambitious and incredible record.

First time I heard “Lotus”, one of the key singles from Up, I wasn’t particularly thrilled. Granted, I was about 10 and my music taste wasn’t particularly good at the time in general, but I still vividly remember hearing it and how odd and disjointed it sounded to my ears - to the degree that I still remember it. I guess many people were in a similar position to me at the time, likely including R.E.M. themselves. Bill Berry had left and given the others his blessing to continue without him, and they did so with mixed feelings, describing themselves as a three-legged dog. Things didn’t just have to change, they were forced to change. 1998 was a peak year for alternative rock heroes discovering electronics and R.E.M. found themselves caught in the tide by half-accident: occupying Berry’s empty drummer’s seat with drum machines was a logical step, but they dug deeper than just that, hiding their own troubled thoughts into sonic layers and scratching the traditional R.E.M. melodies with organised chaos.

It’s up for debate how much of it was influenced by the general melancholy lingering among the band at the time, but Up hatched into an introspective mood piece. Much of it is moves along the same mid-to-low tempo and the soundscape is full of detailed textures, soft keyboard walls and electronic fuzz. Peter Buck’s guitar takes a backseat and instead of his traditional bright melodies, he hides the harmony under distortion, replaces it with heavy e-bow treatment or leaves guitars out altogether in favour of keyboards. Stipe alternates between worn-out, frustrated and completely given up throughout the album and the narrator characters of his lyrics are all at their lowest point - people who have been beaten by the world and are too tired to rise up again, who succumb to accusing everyone else but themselves, feel eternally confused and out of place in the world, or just plain give up. The band members look sullen and lost in their own worlds in the back cover and that about sums it up. R.E.M. weren’t really ready to continue just yet, but they did and the emotional exert comes through in the music.

Despite the abrupt 180 in the mood from New Adventures’ rock and roll breeze, the band are still very clearly riding atop the creative wave that guided them through the 90s. Look no further than the opening twin act of Up, which is one of the most perfectly complimentary pairings of songs I’ve come across. “Airportman” starts the album in a most un-R.E.M.-like fashion, with a tiny electronic percussion pecking in the background while a strong, distorted bass appears and disappears intermittently amidst a sea of all sorts of ambient noise. A tiny piano melody seems to wander its own way, a tiniest trace of harmony all by itself, Stipe whispers and mutters his words almost incomprehensibly. This goes on for four minutes until the song gently fades into total silence. And then everything crashes. The next in line “Lotus” breaks the silence with a drum roll and launches into a surreally funky, thick and groovy number that sounds like it’s coming from the depths of a fever dream. The mood is tossed completely topsy-turvy from “Airportman”, the ambient drone switched into a loud interpretation of a rock song. But “Lotus” retains its mysterious atmosphere - Stipe’s lyrics border on nonsense in their extremely abstract obliqueness, his vocals are double-tracked throughout the song to play both the parts of a softly seductive whisperer and a guttural crooner, and the song’s instrumentation has something very beautifully unsettling to it with its swooping strings, thick bass and endlessly buzzing keyboard lines in the background, all the bells and whistles thrown around and throughout in-between (the band would release a “Weird Mix” of the song as a b-side to the single, which reverses the mix i.e. everything that was in the background is now in the fore and vice versa - you genuinely do not get just how busy the song is until you listen to it). Suffice to say I’ve turned my opinion around on “Lotus” from my ten-year-old self’s take on it, an as an opener salvo both “Airportman” and “Lotus” is a jawdropper.

“Lotus” is by far the most frenetic of Up’s lot but it’s far from the only curve ball the album throws; if anything, Up is nothing but curve balls. The running current through the album is its focus on the introspective aspects of R.E.M.’s music, but how it expresses that varies wildly. “The Apologist” swivels between self-loathing and one “I’m sorry” after another as it jumps from its loopy verses into something vaguely resembling a hook-oriented chorus, “Hope” pushes onward like a train in its electro-acoustic glory, covering its acoustic guitar bones with a dissonant electronic wail, “Walk Unafraid” increases the tempo to create something that resembles a traditional rock track although in a twisted, masqueraded form, with a habit of falling apart piece by piece. On the other end there’s the dreamy “Suspicion” with its gentle lullaby melody that sounds alarmingly otherwordly rather than soothing (and on an album bereft of traditional Buck moments, features a guitar solo), the gorgeously swirling “You’re in the Air” that reaches a place somewhere between desperate and aching, and “Diminished”, an unassumingly calm and collected with a dark heart, and another case of the arrangement favouring a selection of odds and ends to twist the song sonically into something far beyond its calm lurch forward. Even something as simple as “Why Not Smile” with its downstated melody and one of the most straightforward arrangements of the album, mostly centered around Mills’ organ, drowns itself into guitar feedback before too long, countering its own saccharine notions (or faux-saccharine, given the song can be either venomous or genuine depending who you ask).

What’s common with all these songs musically is the intricate attention to rhythm and the desire to distort the mood within the song. Without Berry’s steady drumming keeping the songs on track, it’s almost like the rhythm has gone off the rails: the metronome-esque drum machines tick perfectly in time, but they’re often accentuated by overlaid percussion or drum sections that are driven by fills. It gives Up a jilted feeling, a walk where the floor seems to almost give in with each step. The other hum and drum over the arrangements enhances that feel. R.E.M.’s utilisation of electronic elements isn’t just more prominent keyboards (although Mills gets the lead instrument role more often than Buck for much of the album), but it’s used to intentionally screw around with expectations: gentle songs with soft melodies covered in feedback and static, piercing synth lines and controlled chaos. It’s a fantastic sound: it’s the perfect accompaniment to the lyrics and the prevalent mood, keeping the listener on their toes and rewarding those who take the focus to sink into the production and the sound with fascinating details which alter songs forever as soon as you spot them.

Parts of Up do drop these obscuring elements and the stark nakedness and simple beauty of them are arresting in comparison. The ethereal and sleepy single “Daysleeper” captures its 2AM burnout blues mood perfectly and lifts off like a soothingly melancholy cloud: it’s the most traditionally R.E.M.-esque song on the album in a myriad of ways, from its tone to heavily band-centered arrangement, and on Up it serves as a palate cleanser and a brief oasis of straightforward grace. “Sad Professor” serves a similar purpose, an acoustic song full of late-night, isolationist melancholy that could have come from any album in the last decade of R.E.M. and now sounds like a traditional look back. It’s full of weary blues like nearly everything in Up, but there is a genuine spot of light as well: “At My Most Beautiful” is the album’s one moment of honest happiness. It’s R.E.M.’s most straightforward love song and a tribute to Beach Boys musically and vocally (with the vocal harmonies making up so much of its theme), a simple and heart-in-sleeve confession of pure love and infatuation in form of a celebration to all the silly little things you do when hopelessly in love. It’s the only moment on the album with no strings attached or doubt sown at the back of the mind and that alone makes it stand out, but it’s generally a little marvel of a song: a genuine heart-warmer of a love song. Both “Daysleeper” and “At My Most Beautiful” were also singles, somewhat deceivingly open invites to an album that otherwise retreats into itself.

That retreat makes Up special, though. The argument that a lot of the best music comes from personal hardships is painfully true too often, and it’s happened here as well. Up isn’t a traditional kind of R.E.M. album, certainly not a beginning of a new chapter even if it feels like it: it’s an abrupt interlude and gear change which needed to exist, rather than a new iteration of the band making their bold first step. But it’s an album soaked with meaning, feeling and power. Its dense sound is an aural chest of wonders that begins to create its own reality as it begins, enveloping the listener within the production and demanding attention to every little detail. Within that production is a selection of songs full of ache and confusion, brought forward by a captivating emotional performance. They’re songs that are subtler about their intentions than most of the band’s music, but which pack every bit as much strength inside them: if you want hooks you have them, but there’s a whole realm of inspiring musical passages, fantastic instrumental parts and fantastic areas where strong songwriting and deliberately emphasised production choices seamlessly merge, where both are as important as each other. It hits hard. Up isn’t a signifier of R.E.M.’s most obvious strengths but through the band challenging themselves and pushing through their hardships, they have created a superlative album that is, quite honestly, their best record. That statement isn’t a slight towards Bill Berry - the man was essential, as some of the other later-day R.E.M. albums prove. And it’s a statement obviously loaded with an incredible amount of personal bias: over time Up has found me at times when I’ve needed something like it the most, it was one of the key albums that made me re-think and realise certain facets of music that I thoroughly love, and its weary mood mixed with its gorgeous songs have a power even today that takes me aback.

I’ve held back on mentioning Up’s closer until now. As fantastically as it started, Up’s complimenting bookend has a similar importance to its cycle. At the final moments of a long, contemplative album, “Falls to Climb” offers its final confessional. Built entirely around a swirling organ and Stipe’s tortured, waiting-on-release singing, “Falls to Climb” is the final act of release, with the narrator accepting his faults and the effects of his actions with martyr-like openess. The music gradually builds element by element each go-around, sometimes with bogus steps - the acoustic guitar that only appears for a moment before disappearing forever again - until it finally lifts off with a simple marching beat, Stipe yelling out his final lines of the album - “I am free” - over and over again before the music quietens down. It’s the perfect finale for Up: an emotional expunge to settle the score, to bury the emotional conflicts of the album and to relieve as much the narrator as the listener. It’s one of the very best songs R.E.M. ever did, and as a closer it’s one of the rare ones which present such an impactful finale that after the album stops to silence and you emerge back into the real world, everything feels a little different, your own emotional charge feels different.

It’s hard for me to describe exactly why, but this is among the very, very greatest records ever for me, likely even in the top 2 of all time if you want to go list-y. Should I consider reasons why I love music so much, it’s albums like this.

Physically: Up represents change in terms of its physical aspects too. For the first time in R.E.M. history the full lyrics for each song have been printed, across several pages of an actual flip booklet.


REVEAL

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2001 9 "I've Been High", "Beat a Drum", "Imitation of Life"

1) The Lifting; 2) I’ve Been High; 3) All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star); 4) She Just Wants to Be; 5) Disappear; 6) Saturn Return; 7) Beat a Drum; 8) Imitation of Life; 9) Summer Turns to High; 10) Chorus and the Ring; 11) I’ll Take the Rain; 12) Beachball

Up's electronica elements mixed with the lush orchestral production of the early 90s records, which when combined turn into a quintessential summer record.

After Up’s deeply personal, soul-cleansing exercise, Reveal carries an aura of reconnection with the greater world. As incredible as Up was, the primary impression it leaves is its very insular sound and mood, where you have to dig a little deeper to find the still strongly beating heart of R.E.M.’s songwriting. Reveal, then, presents as much of an 180 turn as Up did. The traditional band roles are in more prominent display again (including an increased presence of session drummers), even if there’s still a lingering element of R.E.M. taking cautious steps forward as a three-person incarnation in tune with Up’s soundscapes, with programmed drums, frequent synthesizers and emphasised keyboard parts making up much of the album. But as albums, they’re night and day - where Up was the melancholy late hours spent awake lost in thought; Reveal is the brand new morning. It’s a decidedly more upbeat album, full of harmonies rather than controlled chaos. There’s a clear desire for the band to smile again, resulting in a shift in gears to a more traditionally R.E.M.-esque album. Even the opening song welcomes you in: “Good morning! How are you? The weather’s fine, the sky is blue…”

“The Lifting”, the said opener, is a grand start and continues with the band’s tradition of strong openers, and is in fact one of the best in that regard. It’s light as a breeze, bouncing on every step like a liberated free spirit, throwing an infectious hook after another as Buck’s familiar jangle appears and the drums carry an infectious rhythm. Stipe has entertained the thought that the song is about the same overworked soul as Up’s “Daysleeper”, and thus it’s another semi-intentional shedding of the previous album’s weariness, bringing the melancholy narrator to the open sunlight. It’s an overwhelmingly joyous song above all, but doesn’t aggressively try to be one, like e.g. the decidedly hyper-upbeat “Stand” or “Shiny Happy People”. There’s genuineness to it and its spiralling conclusion, with Stipe yelping full of energy, is a moment of honest delight - and in that sense, it leads the way perfectly. Reveal is open and inviting, in tone and in music - positive, melodically rich and full of hooks. After Up’s experimentation Reveal places simple songcraft back in the spotlight, and while there’s still great importance placed on the production of the material, the songs presented here are first and foremost guided by their melodies.

Much of what makes Reveal jump alive is still how the band treat the studio as an integral instrument in its own right, and the ambience that’s pushed through the ideas making up the album’s world of sound. There’s a level of obsession in details prevalent throughout, carefully layered sounds and minor parts forming into a greater whole as R.E.M. seek a particular feeling throughout. Reveal is a pastoral album, a record aimed for summer through and through - the cover, the May release date, the constant lyrical references to the season and especially overt touches like sampling crickets make it abundantly clear, and the sound itself is appropriately lush, warm and inviting. The production is pristine enough to let all these details come through clearly, but there’s not a trace of studio sterility. The instrumentation emphasises bright keyboards, clean guitar parts and gentle touches of electronic programming, with Up’s dissonance brushed away as far back as possible. Even in its more introspective moments the band reach out their hand rather than wallow away.

The production’s other main role is tying together Reveal’s different strands. R.E.M. are in transition here, with one foot in the electronic soundscapes they’ve played around with for the previous couple of years, while the other foot is kicking back for a full band feel. Thus Reveal is, despite its unifying atmosphere, a diverse album. The traditional R.E.M. band sound makes a comeback frequently, but with a twist in how it goes about its arrangements, though there is a precedent. Before Reveal, the band released the (fantastic) soundtrack single “The Great Beyond”, re-introducing R.E.M. as a full-band rock act but one with an expanded sonic palette built upon Up’s studio wizardry and the willingness to tap into new soundscapes through precise arrangements, and it’s like the blueprint that Reveal’s foundations are based on. Thus for example the guitar-driven “Disappear” and “She Just Wants to Be” sound like natural extensions of where the band were in the 90s, but there’s a kind of grace and aural richness that sounds new. It’s at times akin to a 21st century update on studio magic of 60s classic pop psychedelia years.

The first two singles, “Imitation of Life” and “All the Way to Reno”, are such great examples of this - and they are among the band’s most obvious hits in how irresistibly melodic and sing-along-y they are. To R.E.M.’s credit they don’t sound remotely like they were engineered to be so and instead they are, once again, rich and soulful. The former is an unashamed pop anthem with one of the band’s most simply thrilling choruses (and some fine, contrasting lower-end string stabs and the suddenly bittersweet bridge cutting through the song and reducing the risk of saccharine overload). The latter is a relaxed, effortlessly lush melodic stroll rich in harmonies and arranged gorgeously: of all the songs in Reveal, it carries the strongest comparison to “The Great Beyond” and goes for the same almost-wistful euphoria, successfully as well. In complete contrast, “I’ll Take the Rain” is a gut-puncher - a bittersweet, heartaching ballad among the band’s most fragile, swerving Reveal’s final run with a sudden emotional curveball. With one of their most poignant choruses, it goes all the way to the top, its sadness piercing through with Buck’s chiming guitar lines (and an actual guitar solo!). It’s a powerful song, utilising Reveal’s warmth in a wholly different way than the rest of the album.

The keyboard/synth-oriented songs on the other hand are dreamy, serene moments of still among the lively full band cuts. “I’ve Been High” is arguably the most extreme of the lot, as there’s nary a trace of live instrument in its pseudo-synth pop sound. It’s a colossally beautiful, haunting deep cut however, full of graceful melancholy and soothing dreaminess breaking through the sad haze - and its last minute, from its career standout bridge to the rise it takes in its finale and Stipe’s evocative lyric lines, is absolutely incredible. “Beat a Drum”, “Summer Turns to High” and “Beachball” on the other hand are prime examples of what I mean when I talk about Reveal as a summer album, evoking the spirit of the season and the lazy holidays with their warm sound. The latter two directly make the comparisons, the electro-acoustic “Summer Turns to High” obviously so while the mellow float of “Beachball” somehow manages to take the feeling of watching the sun go down at the end of a perfect summer’s day and turn it into music, gently bobbing along with its minimalistic beat. “Beat a Drum” is a little masterpiece as well, with Mills taking control through his softly swaying bass riff, the gentle piano leading the song and enriching the chorus through his backing vocals. The chorus, incidentally, is another one that manages to evoke so much so effectively through what is in the end a very few lines and a fairly straightforward progression; and yet, it’s one of the album’s most magical moments, a true blooming of warm summer air in music.

The one song most driven by the production, “Saturn Return”, is a little marvel on its own: all tightly-wound atmosphere with little elements bouncing back and forth between the headphones, constantly switching its lead instrument from Buck’s feedback-heavy guitar line to Mills’ delicate piano, floating on top of a persistent drum machine up until the near end when the live drums kick in for a moment. It’s the most Up-esque moment on Reveal, a bridge between the two that reminds the band haven’t completed moved away from it. It’s quietly one of Reveal’s key tracks: an unassuming oddity at first, eventually revealing itself to be an integral centrepiece and a curious shadow cast over the album’s summer day.

The one remaining song, “Chorus and the Ring”, is a strange one, not really going anywhere yet towards its end it reaches a certain kind of crescendo of its own ilk where you find yourself strangely captured by the song. It’s an odd one out on an album that otherwise has a very direct touch with its songwriting (“Saturn Return” included), and perhaps the only slightly dimmer spot in what is otherwise one of R.E.M.’s very finest records. That’s not a light statement, but it feels almost borderline obvious, because Reveal seems to have it all. Stipe is in brilliant lyrical form, with so many great lines that lead your imagination flying, the production is golden and everyone involved with the actual playing of the music are delivering a sharp performance. And as an album, Reveal is certainly one of their most melodic: it embraces a type of songwriting which leans on harmony and goes for hooks within hooks, almost overwhelmingly so. That’s always been a strength for R.E.M. and Reveal revolves around it, making it the core theme for the album together with the lushness and the summer vibe. If you can think of a picturesque sunset on a peaceful summer’s evening following a pleasantly hot day, and experiencing that comforting feeling of everything being perfect and carefree in life like the best summer vacation you’ve had - that’s where Reveal wants to take you.

And it does. “Beachball” closes the album with Stipe repeating “you’ll do fine” as the sun goes down in the horizon, and you can tell that after all the sadness and uncertainty, there was hope again in the band’s ranks.

Physically: We're back to fold-out booklets, but with the full set of lyrics once more. The extra artwork is particularly lazy on this one though, with the album cover copied over and over again with different colour filters.


AROUND THE SUN

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2004 7 "Leaving New York", "Electron Blue", "Aftermath"

1) Leaving New York; 2) Electron Blue; 3) The Outsiders (feat. Q-Tip); 4) Make It All Okay; 5) Final Straw; 6) I Wanted to Be Wrong; 7) Wanderlust; 8) Boy in the Well; 9) Aftermath; 10) High Speed Train; 11) The Worst Joke Ever; 12) The Ascent of Man; 13) Around the Sun

Better than its reputation but it's close - the dreadful overproduction and generally anemic nature of the album are only overcome by the core of largely solid songs hiding underneath.

After Reveal, R.E.M. seemed to be consciously moving towards a wilder, thrillingly energetic rock direction with all guitars blazing, and they were actively mining their past for inspiration. The compilation single “Bad Day”, soundtrack cut “All the Right Friends” and live-only treat “Permanent Vacation” were all songs from the very early days of the band that had only previously been heard as rough demos, but now repurposed very faithfully by a matured, experienced band in a more muscular form. This would become the dominant direction for the band’s last years, with the 80s-guided Olympia concerts, Accelerate and Collapse Into Now all coming from the same path of action. Having reached their third decade, R.E.M. were ready to be the fiercest they’ve ever been.

Which is why Around the Sun continues to be the weirdest thing in the entire R.E.M. discography. In-between this perfectly linear, logical progression in sound is this borderline random curveball with no rhyme or reason. Around the Sun is devoid of all the energy the band were clearly full of, slowly descending back to the ground right as the band were lifting off. It barely register above mid-tempo even in its wildest moments (which is an exaggeration to say to begin with), and this is after the band stopped themselves from going even further along that path - there’s some anecdotes going around where apparently Peter Buck’s main take on each song was to make it even slower. It comes off like the intention was to consciously stagnate.

The production is the big bad, though. After their generally good standards across their back catalogue and the particularly gorgeous production of the last two albums, Around the Sun drops the ball completely. It’s compressed, monotonous and completely devoid of any dynamics or life, all one-tone sonic wallpaper that stifles over everything. There’s little to no spirit to any of the musicianship and the only reminder that this is R.E.M. instead of a collection of session musicians are Stipe and Mills’ vocals. Stipe does his best to sound connected but the production washes it over with a wave of lethargy. The best descriptor for Around the Sun is plodding and it’s not flattering at all. The impression it leaves is R.E.M. stopping their new wind still and taking their third decade towards an early retirement home.

It’s likely to come as a surprise then that Around the Sun still turns out decently, all things considered. This is in spite of its flaws - the general malaise and the stifling production are two constants the album never shakes off, and Around the Sun could be twice the album it is if it was free of them. But the songs, for the most part, still work. Around the Sun is an album of slow-burners that occasionally come off a little over-long or samey, but it’s kind of hard for R.E.M. not to do something that sticks. There’s enough minor stand-out moments to make most songs register positively, even if sometimes describing them individually seems pointless. You can say most of the same things about “Make It All Okay” or “I Wanted to Be Wrong” than you can about “The Ascent of Man” or “The Worst Joke Ever”, for example - similar structures, similar tricks, all mid-tempo without committing too much into any particular emotion, but with a standout melody or section somewhere in them that gives them something unique remember them for. It’s R.E.M. in mid-life crisis stadium torch song mode and whilst it’s not their most flattering form, they do find ways to make it work throughout. Here and there the occasional blunder rears its head: the bouncy but overtly fluffy “Wanderlust” is just too air-headed to be anything but filler, and the protest song “Final Straw” probably would have more bite to it if it didn’t sound so plastic thanks to the utterly cluttered production trying to spruce up what is at its core a folk protest song. It’s a shame in case of the latter, because there’s potential there to be something far more emotional. It’s an example of the epidemic Around the Sun is fallen ill of, with an album-load of decent ideas crying out for a better presentation.

Lion’s share of the good will is done by the opening trio, which is actually a genuinely great run of songs. “Leaving New York” alone is a R.E.M. classic: a gentle, bittersweet mid-tempo in the style that R.E.M. at this point excel in, with a glorious chorus that is so obviously golden from the first time you hear it. The real star are the backing vocals, which start fairly innocuously but soon become the song’s driving force, with around four different vocal layers trading lines and harmonies towards the song’s end. “Electron Blue” is the liveliest song of the collection, with everyone sounding engaged and Stipe especially delivering his most memorable performance on the album, backed by layered percussion and Buck’s wild e-bow textures. It’s also the one song where the album’s production choices actually compliment the tune: the shiny, pure aesthetic of the sound mashes particularly well with the musical ideas and lyrical concepts (the song being about a sci-fi drug made of light). “The Outsiders” is a strange but compelling one. R.E.M. have expressed their love for hip-hop before but “The Outsiders” comes closest to really bringing it out, with a steady, tight beat which completely leads the song and is so obviously inspired by the genre that when Q-Tip makes a guest appearance towards the end, finishing the song off with a verse of his own, it’s a perfectly natural fit. Stipe doesn’t rap, but his dreamy, murmured tone lends to the song’s hypnotic feel and even the chorus barely lifts a finger, only just giving Buck’s lead guitar line more prominence. It’s a song that builds a very particular, slightly off-kilter mood but which works so well and is easily the most interesting song on the record.

Other key highlights include “Aftermath” which is an incredibly unassuming little pop song that doesn’t make much ruckus about itself but sounds so effortless that it whisks away the rest of the album’s stiffness away: it’s a real smile-maker, a rare moment on the album where R.E.M. sound like they’re feeling what they’re playing, and it makes it one of the great unsung gems of their back catalogue. The title track (the first one in R.E.M. discography!) is also a particular stand-out: it whisks away any structural routines, with a clear split down the middle between its sky-reaching first half and the gently descending second part. It’s a strange ending to Around the Sun because where the rest of the album is sometimes conventional to a fault, in its last steps it breaks away completely from the simple sing-along choruses and gentle melodies. It’s out of place and hints at an album that’s perhaps meditative but taking a path of its own devising - a more interesting album made out of the same building blocks.

But that’s obviously not what we have. Instead, Around the Sun is an odd moment of ennui and stagnation which doesn’t slot comfortably if you view it as part of the bigger picture, and which feels distant from how engaged and personal R.E.M. were before. It sounds older than its years, if you can call an album that - it’s something you’d expect from a band who aren’t fully into what they’re doing anymore. Around the Sun is a clear dip in judgment, but credit where it’s due to R.E.M. for still getting through it fine enough. Even when half the time the music resembles career musicians clocking in shifts, these professionals know what they’re doing when it comes to making decent songs, even if not career highlights per se.

Physically: The copy I have is the "limited edition" digipak release, which was released in some regions in place of the standard jewel case edition. I wish I had the standard one - nothing wrong with a digipak but the booklet (well, a fold-out poster with all the lyrics etc) cannot be secured within the packaging in any way, meaning it's completely loose and will drop out unless you hold the album tightly shut. Ridiculous.


LIVE

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2007 6 "I Took Your Name", "Leaving New York", "Walk Unafraid"

CD1: 1) I Took Your Name; 2) So Fast, So Numb; 3) Boy in the Well; 4) Cuyahoga; 5) Everybody Hurts; 6) Electron Blue; 7) Bad Day; 8) The Ascent of Man; 9) The Great Beyond; 10) Leaving New York; 11) Orange Crush; 12) I Wanted to Be Wrong; 13) Final Straw; 14) Imitation of Life; 15) The One I Love; 16) Walk Unafraid; 17) Losing My Religion
CD2: 1) What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?; 2) Drive; 3) (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville; 4) I’m Gonna DJ; 5) Man on the Moon

R.E.M. in full stadium veteran mode for their first proper live album - a little too professionally so.

R.E.M. had released a number of concert videos before, but you had to wait until 2007 for their first full concert audio recording. Much like the super-processed Around the Sun was a strange decision for the band given their increasing energy in the 00s, releasing the band’s debut live album out of the tour for such a studio-chained album is similarly odd. There is a hint of a point to prove perhaps: to signal that the album’s songs could form a natural part of the band’s live set, or perhaps even a retrospective attempt to give the songs a chance to breathe that the stifled studio versions didn’t get. Or perhaps it just felt like the right time, with R.E.M. now having fully become a veteran stadium act with the career professionalism and mannerisms of one. Each R.E.M. live release has always taken a snapshot of a specific side or moment in the band’s life: with Live, it’s capturing the band at their most stadium rocking, armed with a catalogue of hits big enough to reach every single person in those giant halls.

Live is, in good and bad, a highly professional live recording. The band perform flawlessly, Stipe has full control of the audience, all the big hits you’d expect to be here are featured and they’re accompanied by a number of fan favourites - you can’t really fault the tracklist. Songs from Around the Sun feature heavily understandably, and there’s even a then-unreleased preview of things to come with the future Accelerate cut “I’m Gonna DJ”. The sound is as pristine as you can get with a live album, and the audience mix is in the exact right balance. Befittingly for its parent album, Live feels just as polished, even overtly so. With live albums, you ideally want to feel like you’re part of the experience, sharing the moment with the band in the same room. It sounds too clean, too sharp for any of that. If a successful live album makes you feel you’re at the gig, Live is more like watching a recording of the concert from your computer.

The actual music is, of course, great. The big hits like "Losing My Religion" or "Man in the Moon" are performed with gusto, R.E.M. being very aware of the status the songs have and honouring them by giving them their all. The non-hits are among the album’s best: “I Took Your Name” is a brilliant opener that kicks the album into gear with a bang, and particularly the Up highlight “Walk Unafraid” has somehow transformed from the neurotic and loopy form we know into a real anthem with a backbone of steel and irontight grip on the listener. The main weak link are the Around the Sun songs, and I say this as a semi-defender of that album. If there was any hope of the songs gaining any extra traction outside the studio it’s brushed off fairly quickly, with every backing loop track and overly heavy synth string sample removing the flashes of life the band kick into them on stage. Though, still, there are good eggs: “Final Straw” is a little more raw which works so well for the song, and while “Leaving New York” was a late-period R.E.M. classic from day one, the vocal harmony arrangement the band have opted for its layered second half works wonders and is a joy to hear.

The songs make Live a good listen, but in the grand scheme of R.E.M. live recordings it’s easily the least essential. There’s no real divergences from the studio versions of the songs to go back to, the regular favourites are presented with more gusto on other albums and the only unique material featured here are the somewhat underwhelming Around the Sun songs. The aspect the release highlights - the almost bloated stadium rock experience - isn’t a particularly exciting one in contrast to other recordings. It’s hard to really fault Live per se (the biggest criticism I have is the baffling decision not to even out the disc lengths, leaving you with a scrap-like 5-song EP as the second disc), but there’s never a point you’d be compelled to return to instead of just listening to the studio albums. This wasn’t a particularly adventurous phase for the band, and what you get is a very safe if unthrilling live album.

The album also comes with a DVD version of the gig. Seeing the visuals does not really add anything to the songs, and this tour in general was a lull point where the band were reliably good but not particularly interesting when on stage: veteran musicians doing their day jobs, nothing more. It doesn’t add to or subtract from the score - I forget it’s there half the time - but it’s a decent enough bonus. They have far better, more exciting live DVDs.

Physically: An impressively thick as hell extra large digipak, housing all three discs together. The booklet is in contrast pathetic, with a few slim pages of credits with no artwork.


ACCELERATE

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2008 8 "Living Well Is the Best Revenge", "Man-Sized Wreath", "Supernatural Superserious"

1) Living Well Is the Best Revenge; 2) Man-Sized Wreath; 3) Supernatural Superserious; 4) Hollow Man; 5) Houston; 6) Accelerate; 7) Until the Day Is Done; 8) Mr. Richards; 9) Sing for the Submarine; 10) Horse to Water; 11) I'm Gonna DJ

Stripped away of any excess and back to good ol' fashion rock and roll, with a veteran's muscle. Don't call it a return to form, but they've definitely found a fountain of youth somewhere.

Accelerate is the course change that was promised. R.E.M.'s shift to a powerhouse rock direction was long precedented by a number of one-off songs in that vein, only to be suddenly interrupted by the whiplash lethargy of Around the Sun. As out of the blue as that album appeared, just as quickly the band moved forward from it like it had never happened. Accelerate is the culmination of R.E.M. going back to their early demo archives for inspiration, their growing confidence in becoming a rock band again even as a three-piece, and proudly refusing to let their advancing ages determine their pace.

It's a great thing to hear, even as a fan of mostly everything after Berry's departure. It's clear how much fun R.E.M. themselves were having again, and the energy present here is a real, excited energy rather than just higher tempos - which leads to a reinvigorated instrumental performance for the band too. Mills in particular is practically reborn, his bass riffs moving up and down the neck like back in the 80s and they're a de facto key element of Accelerate's sound. Buck, too, sounds refreshed and his guitar steps up to a more dominant role once again, with a more muscular riff based approach befitting of the rock and roll vibe the band aim for. There's a very marked difference between the band who recorded Around the Sun and the guys appearing here - it's such a strong second wind that they're practically a new group here. Jacknife Lee's production helps: I'm not a particular fan of Lee's production style, which is a very by-the-numbers modern rock production, but the change in producer after three albums with Pat McCarthy has given the band a fresh angle to work with, and Lee's style is suitably punchy for what R.E.M. are aiming for here.

The central concept of Accelerate is a return to basics and stripping down excess. Since the 90s R.E.M. have utilised the studio as an instrument to a growing degree and with that, growing the running lengths of their albums. With a punctual 30-minute short run time and the sounds limited to the core trio and a few select cohorts, Accelerate intentionally pares things down. While much of the inspiration for the album was derived from the past, they steer clear from repeating it. There's very little of the old jangle on Accelerate and certainly none of the college rock groove; instead, the album is adrenaline-driven, quick and tightly performed, where songs are kept brief without much room for extended instrumental fanciness. This is an older and more matured band going towards another new direction, but with the rejuvenated attitude of their younger days in tow to guide them.

Their latest direction really rocks, to be exact. Over the years it's been easy to forget just how great R.E.M. are as a pure rock band, but here's the proof that they still have it firmly at grasp. Take a song like "Living Well Is the Best Revenge", which might just be one of their very best in that regard, starting the album on full throttle and bringing forth Buck's tight riffing, Mills' integral backing vocals and Stipe's powerful frontman command into a sharp explosion of guitars, bounce-along choruses and a sense of force coming from the band. It's life-affirming in its genuine rush of good old rock 'n' roll power. R.E.M. keep up that pace and power throughout and Accelerate's short length feels jam-packed with excitement because of it.

What shines through the rock-out tunes is just how great the band are feeling. Accelerate is very much an album of its times, the current of the US political climate running through it clearly, and on surface it's almost an angry protest album: the political take-downs, the moments of introspection in a chaotic world and the riff-driven, muscular songs would indicate as much. However, with a few exceptions, such as the tense title track, the way the band perform the songs is downright giddy. Throughout Accelerate there's a sense of fun present that's largely been missing from the band's life as a trio up to this point and it's so great hear that again. Most notably "Man-Sized Wreath" is almost comedic (in a very brilliant way) in its ridiculous swagger, complete with Stipe's howling "ow!"s, and the closing "I'm Gonna DJ" is the band's fluffiest song since the early nineties, overflowing with tongue-in-cheek rock bravado so ridiculous it's charming. Even the more seriously taken songs are played through like feel-good hits: "Horse to Water", for one, sounds like R.E.M. learning about skate punk and dialing it to the max, frenetically ripping through a wall of guitars like they're on fire but most audibly having the world's greatest time doing so. Accelerate is a generally good to great collection of songs, but it's that radiant optimism that really makes them stand out. It's most obvious on "Supernatural Superserious", the most classically R.E.M.-esque cut out of the lot, instantly familiar with its phrasings and melodies, but so incredibly effortless that it's actually a little awe-worthy. It was the obvious choice for the album's lead single because even though it has a calmer spirit than most of its parent album, it's both an instant friend and an ear worm, suavely wrapping the listener around its shimmering chorus: it, above all, sums up the album's naturally upbeat nature.

Not all of Accelerate runs on rocket fuel, but the return to a louder volume setting is still present and powering everything. The teasingly short "Houston" is one of the album's major stand-outs, in fact: its driving force is its distorted organ that hauntingly steers the song's lament forward, lending it a deeply foreboding feel that suits the song perfectly. At barely over two minutes it feels like we're being robbed when it ends, a moment where Accelerate's brevity actually feels a little too much so. "Hollow Man" switches between the slower piano-lead verses and the sudden running speed of the chorus, and holds a kind of beautiful grace to both, a slow-burner that stands out more with each passing year. The closest thing the album has to a weak spot is "Until the Day Is Done", sounding a little too ordinary and on-the-nose with its torch song-like antics, but the sheer grace of its chorus saves it - Buck's subtle guitar fills are particularly lush, and a reminder that even with a bolder direction the band's knack for suave arrangements haven't gone anywhere.

The only distinguishable flaw of note that Accelerate carries is Stipe's lyrics, which continue the downward trend of overt simplification and occasionally awkward phrasing first noted on Around the Sun. On an album that cuts its running lengths to the point that it's rare to have a moment where Stipe isn't singing, it becomes a little more prevalent in just that tiny bit bothersome way - largely given for a good part of R.E.M.'s journey Stipe has been such an evocative lyricist. It's not so bothersome you'd deck any points forit , but it's worth a mention just to give an idea on how well Accelerate otherwise succeeds. It could have gone horribly wrong, after all. Bands switching to a no-frills direction after years of painting with an expanded palette can often come off almost disingenuous or misguided in the notion of taking it back to the basics. Accelerate is anything but, because it's not a fan-pandering repeat. There's echoes of the past, particularly to Lifes Rich Pageant's pace and Monster's guitars, and "Sing for the Submarine" intentionally references the band's back catalogue lyrically, but above all the band forge ahead with new ideas. Much of their work post-Berry has been introspective in sound and nature, and even with something as sunny as Reveal there was a push to move the sound to new places in order to re-learn how to walk again on their own terms. Accelerate simplifies in comparison, but it beams with the strength of a band who have moved on past their difficulties and have permitted themselves to smile again. Around the Sun had the air of a stadium band in danger of stagnation under their own global stardom; Accelerate sounds like a band who are hungry to take over the world all over again.

Physically: We've moved onto gatefold packaging now. Full lyrics still in place, but the only other artwork is just a continuation of the cover's cityscape on the backside.


LIVE AT THE OLYMPIA

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2009 8 Who could choose! May as well link to "Harborcoat" on the account there's a decent video of it

CD1: 1) Living Well Is the Best Revenge; 2) Second Guessing; 3) Letter Never Sent; 4) Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance; 5) Disturbance at the Heron House; 6) Mr. Richards; 7) Houston; 8) New Test Leper; 9) Cuyahoga; 10) Electrolite; 11) Man-Sized Wreath; 12) So. Central Rain; 13) On the Fly; 14) Maps and Legends; 15) Sitting Still; 16) Driver 8; 17) Horse to Water; 18) I'm Gonna DJ; 19) Circus Envy; 20) These Days
CD2: 1) Drive; 2) Feeling Gravity's Pull; 3) Until the Day Is Done; 4) Accelerate; 5) Auctioneer (Another Engine); 6) Little America; 7) 1,000,000; 8) Disguised; 9) The Worst Joke Ever; 10) Welcome to the Occupation; 11) Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars); 12) Harborcoat; 13) Wolves, Lower; 14) I've Been High; 15) Kohoutek; 16) West of the Fields; 17) Pretty Persuasion; 18) Romance; 19) Gardening at Night

We never got a proper, stand-alone live album from the early days but this'll do just as well. Nostalgia tripping, but with purpose and passion.

"This is not a show". R.E.M. were very clear about pointing out the difference when hosting a five-night residency in Dublin's Olympia Theatre in 2007. It started out as an idea to quickly road test the new songs the band had been writing (most of which would see the light of day on the following year's Accelerate) in front of a small live audience, ironing out the bugs before heading to the studio. The idea soon turned into a full-on public practice session as the band wheeled out songs they had not played in decades, de-rusting them on the spot, while learning and rearranging their new material on a daily basis. The fans had a rare chance to get an intimate glimpse of their favourite band like they hadn't before - sharing their practice space.

The band certainly felt at ease, despite the strange situation they had thrown themselves in. There's a marked difference between Live at the Olympia and the previous live album, 2007's Live, which featured a stadium band playing their hits like professionals working a shift. Live at the Olympia couldn't be any more different. Everyone's relaxed and loving it, trading comments back and forth between songs they're clearly having a great time with, with Stipe frequently breaking into entertaining, lengthy banter (most memorably when he addresses some ancient lyrics he's had to rely on the internet's interpretations on). The idea that this is a practice run is proven with a couple of mistakes left on tape, but they're more charming than anything, certainly when Stipe struggles to get back into the flow while stifling his own laughter. It's not just an atypical concert for the band, but it's not the kind of show you'd often think to record for a live release. The off-beatness makes it memorable though: a step beyond an intimate setting into a camaraderie-like relationship with the listener, smiling with the band like they're right there. It's a fun record, in ways you'd rarely come to expect from a live album.

The setlist is another big difference to the usual R.E.M. live footage. A good chunk of the band's lifetime from the 90s onward is passed by with barely a nod, and that includes all the big hits - no "Losing My Religion", no "Everybody Hurts", no "Imitation of Life", closest there is is "Drive". The main emphasis instead is on the 80s and specifically the band's years on the IRS label, which makes up the dominating majority of the 39 songs. Even then, they dodge the obvious big ones like "It's the End of the World" and in their place bring out an eclectic mix of fan favourite deep cuts, the band's own pet likes that haven't witnessed the light of day in decades and a few complete left-field obscurities (who even remembered that the rare soundtrack cut "Romance" existed in the first place?). Somehow the decades of difference have made them sound even more energetic than they did before: everyone is clearly loving the chance to blow the dust off these songs, like they're seeing old friends for the first time in forever, and the band inject an incredible amount of sheer force into each track. R.E.M. and their cohorts are on downright incredible form here, and any notion that this would just be a nostalgia-fest goes away fairly quickly just on the strength of the performance alone.

The select few songs from beyond the 80s are there to compliment the other songs, whether in sound (the guitar-crunchy "Circus Envy") or tone (the jovial mood of "Electrolite"). The always-incredible "New Test Leper" is the closest to an obvious selection on the entire album and it further reassures its place as one of the most quintessential R.E.M. songs that brings together the band's various facets, and here it's almost akin to a bridge between the eras. "I've Been High" is the most surprising inclusion and quickly becomes one of the highlights: the Reveal synth-ballad got a few stage reinventions during the band's autumn years and the gorgeous alt-country-esque take here is among the greatest. "The Worst Joke Ever" is presented like to prove a point, because when moved away from the overproduction of Around the Sun the strength of the actual song is allowed to shine, and it slots comfortably beside the rest of the back catalogue presented.

On the flipside of the all the golden oldies are the brand new soon-to-be Accelerate cuts scattered throughout, which have for the most parts already found their general shape save a few small arrangement details. The biggest difference is with "Superserious Supernatural", here still titled "Disguised" to emphasise how work-in-progress the song was as it apparently evolved across all five nights - the final night's version here still has a few major differences to the original (the choruses would eventually become the final bridge and the ending is completely different) and it's clearly not quite there yet, but it's an interesting alternative version. The other Accelerate songs largely also come across as well as they do on the actual album; their more naturally straightforward sound and the shared producer between the two albums makes them sound like slightly alternative takes. They're comfortable companions to the IRS songs: with Accelerate's origin being with the band bringing back their old, unused song drafts, there's a direct line you can trace between them and even the earliest material performed here.

The big fan bait are the two songs exclusive to this record: Accelerate candidates that didn't quite make the grade. "On the Fly" is a pretty torchsong that Stipe pegs down as his early favourite, its wailing guitars and atmospheric keyboards hitting heavy with melancholy. "Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance" on the other hand has Accelerate's signature rock kick to it through and through, and somehow makes its clunky title into an efficient enough vocal hook. Neither of them are anything too exciting, unfortunately: "On the Fly" drags for a little too long while failing to hit the emotional cues it goes for, and "Barrel" comes across as a lesser version of all the other new songs that bear its style. If the two songs prove anything it's that R.E.M. generally have a good judgment on the material they take to the studio: nonetheless, for any big-time fan they're two nice curios to enjoy.

The whole angle of Live at the Olympia points to a curio release overall: the haphazard nature of the gig and the hit-dodging setlist choices mark this one as clearly for the biggest of fans, more so than your average live release. To just file it under that niche category does it a disservice though. Chronologically this is the beginning of the all-out rock and roll direction R.E.M. headed for their last stretch, and it doubles up as both a prologue and a mission overview. The pure energy that flows through the set is genuinely thrilling and engaging, and even though the anniversary re-releases have now brought forward more live material from the actual 80s, hearing R.E.M. revisit their oldest material with the seasoned grip of skillful veterans is a genuine treat (and this is coming from someone who thinks the band's peak golden years started in the 90s). Or to put it this way: it's a live album where I feel excited when listening to it, like I'm genuinely present in the moment and sharing it with the band themselves. There's a lot of R.E.M. live material out there these days and while a lot of it is important in its own way, Live at the Olympia is arguably one the more essential of the lot: even with the intentionally restricted set list, it does an incredible job in highlighting how strong they were on stage.

Physically: A standard 2-disc jewel case. The booklet is a star though, with plenty of photos across all the nights and a long foreword from Andy Gill talking about the project and the atmosphere of the sessions.


COLLAPSE INTO NOW

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2011 7 "All the Best", Überlin, "It Happened Today"

1) Discoverer; 2) All the Best; 3) Ūberlin; 4) Oh My Heart; 5) It Happened Today; 6) Every Day Is Yours to Win; 7) Mine Smell Like Honey; 8) Walk It Back; 9) Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter; 10) That Someone Is You; 11) Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I: 12) Blue

For their last hurrah R.E.M. sum up their entire career in 12 songs, interpreted through their recently rejuvenated form. It's both an apt goodbye as well as a little hit and miss.

Here it is. After fourteen studio albums and thirty-odd years, R.E.M. present their curtain call. Collapse Into Now wasn't announced as such (the actual news hit roughly six months later), but it was intended to be one: R.E.M. knew it was time for them to bow out and ride the high wave of their autumn years into the sunset. In retrospect it's obvious - the lyrics skirt around the issue in a manner that's so clear in hindsight (I'm looking at you "All the Best" and your lines about showing the kids how to do it one last time), and the band even wave goodbye right there on the front cover. But at the time very few people had any idea that it'd be the case, and Collapse Into Now certainly didn't show any signs of the group stopping. Quite the opposite in fact: it felt like the band were continuing to sail with the new wind of energy that Accelerate had brought over.

Beyond that, Collapse Into Now also sounded like the band didn't want to focus on any one particular idea to go forward with - and so they went with everything. Once again, perhaps in hindsight it was a way to sum up what R.E.M. stood for musically as they were ready to place the final full stop at the end, and so Collapse Into Now goes a little all over the place. It's still firmly centered around the muscular and guitar-heavy direction familiar from the previous set of releases, but every other song they keep splintering away from it in various ways. So much of R.E.M.'s past vibes makes a cameo appearance throughout Collapse Into Now, although reflected by where the band were standing at the present. Even Buck's mandolin makes a return after several records of absence, giving a respectful nod to how it became the band's semi-signature instrument for a time. R.E.M. never were a purely nostalgic band and even when they openly dug up their own past (like with Live at the Olympia) they did it in a way that honoured their present - likewise, the familiar elements here are flashes rather than direct throwbacks. It's R.E.M. of 2011 clearly in the lead, but you can tell where the keyboard-heavy dreamers, acoustic ballads or other sudden sonic textures popping up throughout originate from.

That variety comes with some inconsistency. For their last record, R.E.M. pull out a first for the band in creating a record that wildly swings from brilliant to awkward from one song to another (or even within the same song), in a manner that goes beyond the intentionally incohesive vibe the song selection has. It's an album that's difficult to build a consensus on, because how could you make up your mind when even the album itself can't. "That Someone Is You" and "Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter" are irreverent punk fun but border on throwaway, and then they're situated right next to rock anthems as full of life and vigour as "Mine Smell Like Honey" (a chorus so effortlessly soaring it comes out of nowhere) and the self-snarky "All the Best", which put the "kick" in kicking the bucket ("it's just like me to overstay my welcome, bless"). "Every Day Is Yours to Give" tries to be atmospheric but slows things down to a slog with little beyond the surface textures, yet "Oh My Heart" is a genuinely elegant and beautiful plaintive lament, taking its melodies from its direct Accelerate prequel "Houston" but removing the tension surrounding them, allowing the grace of it come to front. For every striking success there's a sudden clumsy step tripping over around the corner.

Within the up-and-down lot there are two rock solid classics which solidly slot into the greater canon, and go a good way in boosting Collapse Into Now's role in the greater whole. "Überlin" is the big one, though it never makes it out to be the case. It's almost dangerously unassuming, keeping things close to the ground and carries itself largely by its simple acoustic riff and steady beat. It conjures an impeccable atmosphere though, conveying getting lost in an urban metropolis and finding amazement from the sheer size of it through a dream-like sway, offering an evocative tone the rest of the album intentionally steers away from. Most of all, it's loaded with killer vocal moments, from the constant interplay between Stipe and Mills to the superbly strong chorus with a great melody and touching bittersweetness, and the little twists and turns that drill into your head (the interjecting "that's astounding!" where you can practically hear the parentheses is my favourite). It's an undeniably signature-like R.E.M. song in how it's grand without ever making itself intentionally so.

"It Happened Today", meanwhile, is pure catharsis. Its first half doesn't make it out to seem so, admittedly: musically it's a neat throwback to 90s coffee shop alternative but not in such a standout fashion you'd highlight it specifically, and Stipe's lyrics could be seen as another self-deprecating nod to the split but other songs do it better. The big thing here is that Stipe leaves his lead spot halfway through to the song, and that's where the tune lifts off: a group of wordless vocal harmonies layer one on top of another, filling the song with counter-melodies and vocal tones and giving it wings, the music shooting off accordingly. The initial light touch turns out to be a build-up for something greater, and for that second half it's a song of pure jubilation - a hint of bittersweet ache haunting in the background, but drowned by the sheer power of a number of voices shouting into the skies in unison. It's a Moment.

There's a lot of those Moments throughout Collapse Into Now, and it's amusing that in an album which frequently changes its tone so obviously from song to song, it's the small moments that really stand out instead of the great sound switches themselves. Even in its weaker moments, something inevitably jumps out: e.g. with "Every Day Is Yours to Give" it's that small bridge after the second chorus where the beat intensifies and carries the vocal melody for a short while. Some are big like the stand-out chorus of "Mine Smell Like Honey", others fleeting such as the beautiful string part of "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando & I" (which is otherwise a perfectly serviceable mood moment but nothing too excellent) or the moment the guitar melody emboldens and begins to carry the verses properly in the pretty but inessential "Walk It Back". Even "That Someone Is You", in all its throw-away nature, gets its own moment when Mike Mills shouts "You! You! You! You!" repeatedly, which is simultaneously hilarious, stupid and hilariously stupid fun. There's at least something in every single song, even when the rest of the tune falls short, and that keeps the album running and adds to its hodgepodge feel.

The overall way that Collapse Into Now's stop-start flow is constantly throwing one off the wheels is fun in a way, and it's certainly a stubbornly playful way for the band to refuse the listener a tragic end: Collapse Into Now honestly doesn't sound like the last album from an iconic band, it's too irreverent for that. No sad tears, no dramatic goodbyes, and most of the time the subject is vaguely touched upon the band actively ridicule themselves for staying together this long. The actual finale, the very last song on the very last R.E.M. album, plays around with the idea too. "Blue" is a heavily textured, almost discordant spoken word piece featuring Patti Smith's haunting wailing (which in itself is another flashback to the past), and it could almost pass as the final end of a sentence if left as is. But then after a brief moment of feedback, it kicks into a reprise of "Discoverer", the thunderous (and great) stadium call the whole record started with, and the album loops unto itself, the finale just going back to the start all over again. It absolutely works: it's a fantastic in-album throwback and one of those big Moments you'll take away from the album, simply because how smoothly "Blue"'s chaos transitions to the fist-pumping clarity of "Discoverer", with the latter giving the former its own closure. It's also another cheeky way for R.E.M. to not go down the way you'd have expected. They've delivered the perfect way to end an album that only serves the record itself; it doesn't matter that it's the last time they'll ever deliver one and the slot practically begged for a career-wide statement.

That attitude, which is honestly charming, certainly doesn't excuse Collapse Into Now's flaws, and it certainly has them - it's far from the upper echelon's of R.E.M.'s discography with its varying quality of songwriting and it's maybe a little disappointing that I have to say that about their last ride. And yet it still stands out, makes a fuss and refuses to simply fizzle out into nothing: flawed or not, there's much to remember within it, even if sometimes it's just a short moment of brilliance within something else. It is maybe most of all a fun album, even with its occasional somber moment. For the album's creation they largely got together in the studio to play absolutely anything they wanted with little greater plan or consideration for any next steps; from the beginning they chose not to even think about touring the album. As such, it's charmingly casual. By intentionally stepping away from the shocker news that would follow it, it gives way for a genuinely natural ending: friends playing whatever they wanted together in a room, just like how it all started back in the day. Warts and all, it's a graceful bow-out to a long career.

Physically: Gatefold stored in a slipcase, with a fold-out booklet for one last time.


OTHER RELEASES


AND I FEEL FINE... THE BEST OF THE I.R.S. YEARS 1982-1987

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2001 9 It's a best of album!

CD1: 1) Begin the Begin; 2) Radio Free Europe; 3) Pretty Persuasion; 4) Talk About the Passion; 5) (Don't Go Back To) Rockville; 6) Sitting Still; 7) Gardening at Night; 8) 7 Chinese Bros. 9) So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry); 10) Driver 8; 11) Can't Get There from Here; 12) Finest Worksong; 13) Feeling Gravity's Pull; 14) I Believe; 15) Life and How to Live It; 16) Cuyahoga; 17) The One I Love; 18) Welcome to the Occupation; 19) Fall on Me; 20) Perfect Circle; 21) It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)1) Discoverer; 2) All the Best; 3) Ūberlin; 4) Oh My Heart; 5) It Happened Today; 6) Every Day Is Yours to Win; 7) Mine Smell Like Honey; 8) Walk It Back; 9) Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter; 10) That Someone Is You; 11) Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I: 12) Blue
Limited Edition CD2: 1) Pilgrimage; 2) These Days; 3) Gardening at Night (Slower Electric Demo); 4) Radio Free Europe (Hib-Tone Version); 5) Sitting Still (Hib-Tone Version); 6) Life and How to Live It (Live); 7) Ages of You (Live); 8) We Walk (Live); 9) 1,000,000 (Live); 10) Finest Worksong (Other Mix); 11) Hyena (Demo); 12) Theme from Two Steps Onward; 13) Superman; 14) All the Right Friends; 15) Mystery to Me (Demo); 16) Just a Touch (Live in Studio); 17) Bad Day; 18) King of Birds; 19) Swan Swan H (Live Acoustic); 20) Disturbance at the Heron House; 21) Time After Time (AnnElise)

As comprehensive a best of as you could get, really. And for the fans, that bonus disc has some surprisingly nice rarities.

R.E.M. knew how to write a brilliant song right from the very start. While they're mainly known for jangling and mumbling during the days represented here, they knew how to vary their recipe and push their own boundaries, leading to a five-album streak that while varied, sounds like a logical path from A to B. The now-defunct I.R.S. and whatever labels that have since absorbed its material into themselves have been pumping out compilations of the band's early material at a steady pace throughout the years, and they've been doing an alright job in condensing the highlights from the period: after all, we're talking about only five albums and an EP here so it's not like picking up the key tracks is particularly difficult. 2006's And I Feel Fine... The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 seems like an unnecessary release in that sense, but rather than pushing out yet another pointless copy/paste compilation, this one actually has the band behind it. It's a fully curated, carefully compiled selection that for the first time involves R.E.M. themselves influencing the song selection, with the idea that this would become the definite I.R.S. era R.E.M. compilation that clears out the rest into the bargain bins they were destined to.

It's a success. Whether you're a newcomer wanting to get a summary of the early days or already familiar with the material but wanting to just run through the best bits, And I Feel Fine is a successful cut-through the period. The 21 songs represented feature all the singles (bar The Clique cover "Superman") and most of the major album cuts; each of the five albums is represented with an equal, respectable amount of songs and the Chronic Town EP is rightfully represented by "Gardening at Night". Everything has been remastered well and the cross-era sequencing forms a brilliant, natural flow. The only nitpick is the lack of "Maps and Legends", which to me has always been one of the key tracks of 80s-R.E.M., but it's hard to really complain about it when the rest of the collection is so well done. It absolutely blows away the previous budget compilations and should do its job perfectly as an introduction. And then the established fans can move onto the deluxe edition bonus content.

The second, extra disc starts from where the main package left off. Each of the four band members has selected a personal favourite deep cut, nicely picking some highlights left off the compilation proper. In addition you've got the excellent version of "Superman" that was missing off the main disc, the 'last song left off the compilation' ("King of Birds") and the original pre-Murmur single versions of "Radio Free Europe" and "Sitting Still" to round off overflow studio material. From there, the disc starts branching off into more uncharted waters. The deluxe edition bonus disc is primarily a collection of non-album choice selections, with an emphasis on variety - no studio b-sides have been included, probably because Dead Letter Office compiles all those pretty comprehensively. In their place are live highlights, including a storming version of "Life and How to Live It" that blows the album version off the charts with its sheer manic energy, and alternate takes such as an intriguing slowed down "Gardening at Night", and and some demos. Some of these demos offer the album's biggest fan-snags, by including the original demos of "All the Right Friends" and especially "Bad Day" (which is one of the few things here previously unreleased): songs which the band wouldn't actually finalise until the 00s, and it's fascinating how close the band kept the final versions to these demos.

Some effort and quality checking has gone into compiling the second disc as well because it's far more consistent than simply the collection of thrown together curio rarities it looks like at first sight. A lot of the alternative versions, live or otherwise, are actually genuinely good and worth one's time beyond the initial listen, and the few pure archive clear-outs do not overlap with any other widespread R.E.M. release so they have a reason to be included. It's a treasure trove for any fan, and the cherry on top are the liner notes. The whole band including Berry go through each and every song on the bonus disc, revealing historic anecdotes and personal feelings about them, in a thoroughly interesting way.

Whether it's the main content or the bonus disc, And I Feel Fine is far more a labour of love than your average compilation. A clear goal was set out here - to focus on quality above all else while presenting an accurate summary of a period that very few casual appreciators ever even think about. The second disc is the missing companion piece to Dead Letter Office that fans should seek out, covering everything essential it was missing and then a little extra. I'd be lying if I said this is a regular listen but out of the best of compilations I've heard across the years from artists I love, this is easily in the top tiers.

Physically: As mentioned in the main review, the band (including Berry) reminisce about each song on the bonus disc in the liner notes, which is a fantastic treasure trove of trivia for fans. Sadly it's only the bonus disc cuts, and as far as I know the standard edition only includes the generic foreword included here as well. Stored in a jewel case.


UNPLUGGED 1991 & 2001: THE COMPLETE SESSIONS

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2014 8 Per era, "Half a World Away" (1991), "All the Way to Reno" (2001)

CD1 (1991): 1) Half a World Away; 2) Disturbance at the Heron House; 3) Radio Song; 4) Low; 5) Perfect Circle; 6) Fall on Me; 7) Belong; 8) Love Is All Around; 9) It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine); 10) Losing My Religion; 11) Pop Song 89; 12) Endgame; 13) Fretless; 14) Swan Swan H; 15) Rotary Eleven; 16) Get Up; 17) World Leader Pretend
CD2 (2001): 1) All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star); 2) Electrolite; 3) At My Most Beautiful; 4) Daysleeper; 5) So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry); 6) Losing My Religion; 7) Country Feedback; 8) Cuyahoga; 9) Imitation of Life; 10) Find the River; 11) The One I Love; 12) Disappear; 13) Beat a Drum; 14) I've Been High; 15) I'll Take the Rain; 16) Sad Professor

The iconic Unplugged gigs, unedited. Cosy and acoustic, with the decade's difference creating a wide enough gap for both concerts to have a unique vibe. They were made for this format.

R.E.M. were one of the few artists who took part in MTV's iconic Unplugged series more than once, and while the two sessions were only a decade apart they couldn't have taken place during more different times for the band. In 1991 R.E.M. had just become one of alternative rock's biggest names with their breakthrough album Out of Time featuring a notably acoustic bent, and so the Unplugged venue was a natural fit for the band to play through their recent hits and a selection of popular back catalogue favourites. Ten years later, their sound had turned studio-heavy and characterised by keyboards, programmed parts and synthesized effects. This time around R.E.M. found themselves having to reinvent songs from scratch to match the unplugged format, re-imagining the arrangements to an entirely different set of instruments as they opted for a set list dominated by deep cuts. There's a single shared song across the two sets - "Losing My Religion", obviously and deservedly - but otherwise the two evenings were completely unique from one another, and would likely have been close to such even with further repeat inclusions due to context alone. Unplugged 1991 & 2001: The Complete Sessions brings both performances together for the first time, and it's the first essential release of the band's post-retirement archive clear-out.

Out of the two, the 1991 concert is the more intimate one - or perhaps cosy is the better word here. The atmosphere is closer to a group of friends spending an evening playing together rather than a group of recent hitmakers performing a concert to strangers. The mood is jovial throughout: upbeat singalongs like "Get Up", "Pop Song 89" and "It's the End of the World" are all over the set, you've got charming curios such as the goofy instrumental "Rotary Eleven" and Mike Mills singing the naturally cheesy cover of "Love Is All Around", "Radio Song" gets a lounge groove makeover, and other such jolly moments. That same closeness also benefits the somber moments of the session and many of them, such as "Half a World Away" and "Perfect Circle", get standout performances where already great songs sound drop-dead gorgeous. One of the core tenets of MTV Unplugged was to bring the artists closer to their fans not just by stripping down the sound but also in physical proximity, and the warm and inviting nature of the 1991 session is a great example of it in action.

In contrast, the general vibe of the 2001 performance is a little closer to that of a band standing in front of an audience: everyone's a little less chatty and there's no whimsical curios this time, and instead the outing is a little more seriously focused on the music alone. But then, the songs themselves aren't as natural a fit for the format. The bulk of the 2001 concert is taken from Up and Reveal, whose studio layers have not just been peeled off but often re-interpreted entirely: Stipe prefaces "I've Been High" by calling it "unabated", before the band move onto reinventing the synth-heavy original into an acoustic ballad. "I've Been High" bears the most radical change of the lot but many of the songs still bear a stark bareness to the studio materials - often bringing something new to the table for them, and always successfully. The innate beauty of the Up cuts get a chance to stand out loud when the electronic noise is left home, and the Reveal< songs bridge across time to demonstrate their shared genes with the 1991 songs. The set list choices outside those two albums are rather tastefully chosen as well, and e.g. "Find the River" and "Cuyahoga" are such perfect fits for this format. The latter in particular just further drills it in how it's one of the great hidden gems of the band's back catalogue, and playing it softer removes none of its melodic brilliance.

Both concerts are stand-out performances if we are honest, and neither is clearly better than the other either (though if we had to pick, I'd probably go for the feel-good first disc over the more professional seriousness of the second). Despite the shared concept, both have their individual strengths and obviously individual songs, and they're both brilliantly executed: the song selections leave nothing wanting, the band's live strength is up high both times and the new arrangements are often lovely. Binding the two sessions together like this is great, and not only for the convenience factor. Part of this set's charm is not just in hearing the subtle differences between the two sets, but also picking out the similarities. When the vastly different material is brought together under the same sonic umbrella, it really brings into light the core R.E.M. sound they all share despite the years between them. No matter how far they strayed away from a more acoustic-oriented style on record, their style of songwriting consistently moulds into that form well. What arguably helps is that both sets also feature a number of helping hands on stage, bringing the sound into further life: it's not quite as stripped down as you'd think, but it's arguably better this way as it gives the alternative arrangements a chance to shine better as it allows for the important musical details to still come through.

Being able to keep the richness of the sound helped in how successfully the band adapted to the format, which in turn surely played a part in them getting invited twice to the show. In fact, their mastery of it is the reason both of these sets have become classic chapters of MTV Unplugged history. Bringing the recordings out from the murky world of bootlegging has helped to canonise their landmark nature: even in the greater live R.E.M. discography alone this release stands out, and even more so in the extremely hit and miss Unplugged live album discography. As someone who did have those bootlegs for many years, having it officially here has only enhanced the seemingly endless replayability of them: when bound together, despite their differences the two gigs work as a really good whole and it's rare that I'll only ever listen to just one of the two anymore. Of all the R.E.M. live releases the Unplugged sets are arguably closest to the token Famous Live Recording for the world outside the main fanbase, and I find it hard to really disagree either: it certainly feels like the most essential R.E.M. live album to own.

Physically: Gatefold packaging with a minimal booklet covering the bare bones details of each performance's crew. Disappointingly sparse for what should be a great archival celebration.


R.E.M. AT THE BBC

Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2018 7 How on earth could I even begin to choose here? Have you seen that tracklist?

CD1 - Live Sessions: 1) World Leader Pretend (Into the Night 1991); 2) Fretless (Into the Night 1991); 3) Half a World Away (Into the Night 1991); 4) Radio Song (Into the Night 1991); 5) Losing My Religion (Into the Night 1991); 6) Love Is All Around (Into the Night 1991); 7) Walk Unafraid (John Peel Session 1998); 8) Daysleeper (John Peel Session 1998); 9) Lotus (John Peel Session 1998); 10) At My Most Beautiful (John Peel Session 1998); 11) Bad Day (Mark and Lard 2003); 12) Orange Crush (Mark and Lard 2003); 13) Man on the Moon (Drivetime 2003); 14) Imitation of Life (Drivetime 2003); 15) Supernatural Superserious (Radio 1 Live Lounge 2008); 16) Munich (Radio 1 Live Lounge 2008)
CD2 - John Peel Session (1998): 1) Introduction; 2) Losing My Religion; 3) New Test Leper; 4) Lotus; 5) Parakeet; 6) Electrolite; 7) Perfect Circle; 8) The Apologist; 9) Band Introductions; 10) Daysleeper; 11) Country Feedback; 12) At My Most Beautiful; 13) Walk Unafraid; 14) Man on the Moon
CD3 - Rock City (1984): 1) Second Guessing; 2) Hyena; 3) Talk About the Passion; 4) West of the Fields; 5) (Don't Go Back To) Rockville; 6) Auctioneer (Another Engine); 7) So. Central Rain; 8) Old Man Kensey; 9) Gardening at Night; 10) 9-9/Hey Diddle Diddle/Feeling Gravity's Pull; 11) Windout; 12) Driver 8; 13) Pretty Persuasion; 14) Radio Free Europe; 15) Wendell Gee; 16) Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)
CD4 - The National Bowl (1995): 1) What's the Frequency, Kenneth?; 2) Crush With Eyeliner; 3) Drive; 4) Turn You Inside-Out; 5) Try Not to Breathe; 6) I Took Your Name; 7) Undertow; 8) Bang and Blame; 9) I Don't Sleep, I Dream; 10) Strange Currencies; 11) Revolution; 12) Tongue
CD5 - The National Bowl (1995): 1) Man on the Moon; 2) Country Feedback; 3) Half a World Away; 4) Losing My Religion; 5) Pop Song 89; 6) Finest Worksong; 7) Get Up; 8) Star 69; 9) Let Me In; 10) Everybody Hurts; 11) Fall on Me; 12) Departure; 13) It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
CD6 - Glastonbury (1999): 1) Lotus; 2) What's the Frequency, Kenneth?; 3) So Fast, So Numb; 4) The Apologist; 5) Fall on Me; 6) Daysleeper; 7) The Wake-Up Bomb; 8) The One I Love; 9) Sweetness Follows; 10) At My Most Beautiful
CD7 - Glastonbury (1999): 1) Losing My Religion; 2) Everybody Hurts; 3) Walk Unafraid; 4) Star 69; 5) Finest Worksong; 6) Man on the Moon; 7) Why Not Smile; 8) Crush with Eyeliner; 9) Tongue; 10) Cuyahoga; 11) It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
CD8 - St. James' Church (2004): 1) Intro; 2) So Fast, So Numb; 3) Boy in the Well; 4) I Wanted to Be Wrong; 5) E-Bow the Letter (with Thom Yorke); 6) Around the Sun; 7) Aftermath; 8) Losing My Religion; 9) Walk Unafraid; 10) Leaving New York; 11) Imitation of Life; 12) Man on the Moon

The people's R.E.M. on the people's channel, from one decade to the next. If nothing else, you can say they've been a staggeringly consistent live act throughout the years.

The paradox of R.E.M. at the BBC is that the only kind of person who would ever think to get the chunky 8-CD, 1-DVD boxset version of this album instead of the summarised 2CD-edition is going to be an obsessive R.E.M. geek, and yet it's those completionist geeks who are arguably going to get the least out of this box.

On paper - and in reality as well - this is certainly an impressive set. Collecting together a number of concerts BBC have captured on tape over the decades, the spread of the sets is massive. The early 1984 gig captures R.E.M. during a time frame that's rarely been recorded in this quality and the 1998 John Peel session sees the band go through a number of rare Up deep cuts (which for any Up-truther like myself is manna from heaven), whereas the triumphant shots of the band on top of the world between the electrified rock and roll fever of the 1995 gig and the joyously hit-gloating 1999 Glastonbury headline set show just what a commanding force the band were at their peak years. The disparate radio session cuts compiled together on the first disc and the last set's intimate Around the Sun period concert where they traded arenas for a church round off the selection well. It's a display of R.E.M. literally through the decades and each time they knock it out of the park, with the recording quality staying solid throughout. You really can't complain if you're a fan and you're not averse to live material.

It just... gets repetitive, and occasionally even redundant if you are a fan and you're not averse to live material, meaning that you've picked up any of the other official live releases along the way like I have. These are all concerts for the general public so you'll be hearing the hits and particular fan favourites constantly ("Losing My Religion" and "Man on the Moon" are literally on every concert apart from the 1984 one) and though it's in a way interesting to track their live arrangements through the years, they're never that different. A good third of the boxset is around the 1998-1999 period as well, so no real change beyond the audience size. The 2004 gig is effectively just an abridged version of 2007's Live with the only real new feature being Thom Yorke backing Stipe so very hauntingly on "E-Bow the Letter" (even if it's not as incredible as the 1998 Tibetan Freedom rendition with Mr. Yorke also in tow). The first disc is by far the worst of the lot: if you've heard the MTV Unplugged sets third of the disc sounds like a reprise, and there's four songs taken literally from a 1998 John Peel Session, which you'll then hear in its full (on a separate night) on the very next disc. The only thing from the first disc that really feels like it warrants a separate release are the neat acoustic takes on "Supernatural Superserious" and Editors' "Munich", both of which display yet another period the box otherwise doesn't touch.

Practically speaking those are only issues if you've heard all the other live albums the band have released already and you've generally become so familiar with this band's touring output that there's no real excitement or revelation involved in these sets. Which is why for a completionist like myself this might be a little more underwhelming than you'd think because it's all very familiar territory, tried and tested and heard through b-sides, live DVDs and other concert recordings. But, don't let that make you think that the actual sets aren't quality - R.E.M. is absolutely on point on each and every single one of these and the 1984 and 1995 sets are particular delights. It's great to hear the band young and hungry on the former, playing parts of the back catalogue that they'd only really revisit when they were old veterans on Live at the Olympia nostalgia fest; meanwhile in 1995 they were just as hungry after returning to touring following an extended break across the last few album cycles, blowing off the roof with the new riff-tastic new songs and louder rock versions of the quiet acoustic songs they had blasted off to the stratosphere with in the early 1990s (the funk rock "Drive" is legendary). Each disc contains at least a few unique deep cuts as well, some of which are brand new to the R.E.M. live recording back catalogue overall.

It's all really good if you think about it logically, really: great songs, great band, great performances. So necking points out of this feels downright performative, but even considering its sheer size it doesn't give me quite the same rush as some of the other R.E.M. live records I've rated higher. R.E.M. at the BBC doesn't have a particular angle beyond being an absolute metric ton of BBC recordings, so nine times out of ten when I'm in a live album mood for this band I'd end up reaching out for the more unique and stylised sets that have been released separately before, simply because they feel more tailored for specific moods and mindsets and that's just what my preference with live albums is. And yet, it's hard to fault any of the sets too much and I thoroughly enjoy them when they're on. So... a neat 7/10, good but not great, depends on the mood kind of score? Sure. But with no disrespect to the work ethos Messiers Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe.

Just never binge through this though or you'll really get sick of "Man on the Moon" in a way that you never, ever thought was possible.

Physically: The box this is stored in is your 'typical' CD boxset: thick square box housed in a sturdy slipcase. The big booklet goes through some of the general background for each of the concerts and has a number of interviews from big name BBC DJs. It's nothing extravagant - functional at best perhaps - but it's got that solid feel-good physical aspect of a decent box set. The paper fold over the slipcase is a bit flimsy though, it's been barely glued on and one of these days I just know it's going to get ripped.


Begin the begin...