The Georgians’ major-label debut – even more thrilling and subversive a quarter of a century on…
Pointedly released on Election Day 1988, REM’s sixth album – and the group’s major label debut – completed the college-rock band’s improbable rise to the top of the rock pyramid alongside U2, who were then coming off the monumental Joshua Tree. That the Athens foursome pulled off this feat without compromise or calculation bespeaks an era when mass appeal and artistic adventurousness went hand in hand.
The climb had been gradual but steady for the band, initially triggered by 1983’s strikingly original Murmur, REM’s first long-player, released by Los Angeles indie IRS Records a year after they signed the then little-known group. Their recipe stirred Michael Stipe’s dreamlike, allusive lyrics and mumbled vocals into a style derived from the stately jangle of the Byrds and spiced up with a shot of punk’s DIY energy. From that spellbinding debut, which captivated the critics on both sides of the Atlantic, the band made two more self-defining LPs in 1984’s Reckoning and the following year’s Fables Of The Reconstruction before enlisting John Mellencamp’s producer Don Gehman, who scraped off the murk, pushing them toward greater clarity and scale on 1986’s widescreen Lifes Rich Pageant. REM’s sonic evolution continued with 1987’s Document, co-produced by Scott Litt, which became the band’s first million-seller in the US, even with its preponderance of politically charged songs. Document yielded their first US Top 10 single in the creepy, widely misconstrued “The One I Love”, as well as one of their signature songs, the exuberant if irony-laced anthem “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.
When the band reunited with Litt to begin recording at Ardent Studios in Memphis (where their heroes Big Star had cut their obscure masterpieces), they brought with them a brace of new songs shaped by the experience of playing basketball arenas on the Document tour – big, churning rockers like “Pop Song 89” and “Orange Crush” (the latter as martial and militant as U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”) seemingly designed to lift crowds of 20,000 out of their seats while flicking their Bics. These behemoths required suitably earthshaking treatments, and Litt was up to the challenge. The engineer turned producer – who’d come to REM by way of their spiritual big brothers the dB’s – put a particular emphasis on recording the drums, thickening Bill Berry’s muscular hits with snare samples so that they erupted like mortar shells.
This aural aggressiveness courses through the album like a high-voltage charge, animating the menacing “Turn You Inside-Out” and “I Remember California” on the one hand, the resolutely positive “Get Up” and “Stand” on the other. The physicality of the latter two tracks is set off by decorative pop arrangements – a swelling chorale overhanging Peter Buck’s deadened-string power riffs on “Get Up”, plinking piano and percussion on “Stand” – which serve to coat the urgency of their message of resiliency with a layer of sweetness. Cut from the same cloth as “It’s The End Of The World…”, “Stand” is part election year protest song, part throwback novelty tune – one that in hindsight perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the late ’80s. It would also become REM’s biggest hit to date and their second biggest ever (behind only “Losing My Religion” from the subsequent Out Of Time), climbing to No.6 on the US charts.
These arena-ready rockers may have drawn most of the initial attention when Green was released – Rolling Stone went so far as to compare “Turn You Inside-Out” to Led Zeppelin – but they were just one aspect of what REM had cooked up. Equally unprecedented, if less assaultive, was the featured appearance of the mandolin, the foreground instrument on the signature REM ballads “You Are My Everything” (paired with Mike Mills’ accordion, another newly introduced instrument), “The Wrong Child” and “Hairshirt”. Just as inspired, and even more striking than these Stipean reveries are the lush “World Leader Pretend”, ornamented by cello and pedal steel, and the closing “Untitled”, a rhapsodic piece anticipating the profound compassion of “Everybody Hurts”, on which Buck drums and Berry plays bass, as UNCUT Editor Allan Jones points out in his notes for the reissue.
The bonus disc – which contains 21 of the 29 songs from REM’s concert at North Carolina’s Greensboro Coliseum, the 129th show on the 130-date Green World Tour – doesn’t merely provide historical context, it captures the band (expanded to a five-piece with the addition of the dB’s Peter Holsapple on guitar and keys) at its live performance peak. In a sustained burst of inspiration, REM deliver the hooks for the punters who’d come to them by way of “Stand”, while still giving the core cultists all the subtle detail they’d come to expect from their favorite band in the world. After opening the Greensboro show with their oppositional pop hits, “Stand” and “The One I Love”, they strategically place Green’s roof-raisers through the performance, and each supercharges the momentum, the cudgeling power of “Orange Crush” sweeping along the paired Lifes Rich Pageant jangle-fests “Cuyahoga” and “These Days” in its wake, the nightmare vision of “I Remember California” doubling the exhilaration of “Get Up”. Pulling mostly from the three most recent LPs, the band cherry-picks a handful of gems from their early days, most satisfyingly the quintessential jangle-rocker “Good Advices” from Fables…, sped up for the occasion, and Murmur’s “Perfect Circle”, which closes the CD (though not the actual set, which ended on the night with covers of Syd Barrett’s “Dark Globe” and the Velvets’ “After Hours”). They also introduce “Belong” and “Low”, which would appear on 1991’s Out Of Time, arrangements already locked in.
It seems ludicrous in retrospect, but when Green came out, more than a few REM purists were taken aback. Some hardcore fans went so far as to accuse their heroes of selling out, the presence of overtly commercial touches confirming their suspicions that the band had turned its back on artistic purity, lured by the multimillion-dollar deal they’d signed with Warner Bros. But hearing the record anew reveals an abundance of riches in the details, the product of the same artistic restlessness and unwillingness to stand pat that had motivated this one-of-a-kind band every step of the way. Together, the studio and live discs serve as a thrilling reminder of what a brilliant band REM was a quarter century ago – fearless in pursuit of their vision, masterful in realising it.