[28 November 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Every time a compilation album chronicling a band’s career comes out, there’s bound to be a batch of songs missing that causes consternation amongst fans. The new two-disc, 40 song send-off for R.E.M., who called it quits in September, called Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, 1982 – 2011, so named after a line made by guitarist Peter Buck about the band’s output in 1988, falls certainly into that category. There is no “Daysleeper”. There is no “Harbourcoat”. There is no “E-Bow the Letter” or “Bittersweet Me”. There is no “Radio Song”. There is no “Star 69”. There is no “Drive”. And on and on it goes. Quite frankly, if there was ever cause for a career-spanning retrospective of one of the late 20th century’s greatest American rock bands, it could quite easily be three discs long, just to fit in all of the great singles that for some inexplicable reason didn’t make the cut on the first two platters. And we’re not even talking about strong album tracks that should be included as well.
Still, Part Lies, which is the band’s seventh (!) greatest hits album not counting live records, is the one to get your mitts on – particularly if you’re a guy (or gal) like me and are more of a casual fan than a rabid diehard. While the set does include three new songs recorded after the band’s 2011 swan song Collapse Into Now, what Part Lies does – and does quite well and effectively – is hit pretty much most of the high points from their 15 studio records (and a few songs grabbed from other sources, such as the Chronic Town EP, the Man on the Moon soundtrack and “Bad Day” from the 2003 In Time greatest hits album). Considering that most of the band’s first 10 or so albums are either stone-cold classics or pretty damn close, and are worth buying individually (this is not to speak of the fact that their 11th album, Up is, I feel, criminally underrated), Part Lies, is a great primer for those who are either new to the band or just happen to have a few albums in their collection and want to fill in some of the gaps before committing to another album purchase.
Additionally, Part Lies makes a somewhat compelling case for the group’s Bill Berry-less years, which tend to get the short shrift (and sometimes with good reason), and gives you one song each from what is widely considered to be the band’s nadirs – 2001’s Reveal and 2004’s Around the Sun. Meaning you won’t have to go out and buy those albums if all you’re looking for, in this case, is the best track from each. For all of these reasons, Part Lies is the band’s most effective compilation and its greatest strength lies in the virtually chronological sequencing, which shows the arc from their college rock jangle pop days to their ascension to becoming one of the biggest draws on the planet to their arguable creative exhaustion to their return to their roots.
Part Lies is interesting on a number of different levels. For one, you can do a content analysis on the package and draw some conclusions about what records the band collectively seemed to like a lot – the band contributes their recollections of the songs to the liner notes and hand selected the running order themselves. Their debut LP Murmur gets three songs, as does their breakthrough 1987 album Document, as does 1991’s mega-successful Out of Time, which the liner notes point out was the mark where R.E.M. stopped selling albums in the millions and instead started selling records in the tens of millions. Considering that one of the songs from Out of Time included here is the deep album cut “Country Feedback” instead of minor hits like “Near Wild Heaven” or the aforementioned “Radio Song”, you get the sense that the band has put a lot of personal investment in the record upon recollection beyond just “the hits”. (Same goes for Collapse Into Now, which is also represented by a bit of an eyebrow-raising three songs – eyebrow raising considering that the album came out only about a half year ago.)
Similarly, it should come as no shock that the group’s 1992 album Automatic for the People, which I feel is their critical high-water mark in a career that’s chock full of them, gets four songs but – here’s the surprise – so does 1988’s Green, their major label debut and an album that was generally well received critically, but hardly deserving of the accolades afforded to Automatic, say. On the flip side of the coin, the pseudo grunge rocker Monster only gets “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, which could say something about R.E.M.’s lack of love for the record, or a comment on the general disinterest in the outing amongst fans – it’s the one R.E.M. album you’ll find frequently in the used CD bins of your favourite second-hand store. (There’s a retailer in Ottawa who refused to buy my copy when I took it in, citing the fact that they had 10 copies of it lying around on their racks that they couldn’t get rid of.) And only about a third of the material comes from the Berry-less years, ostensibly to cover the fact that this is debatably the weakest patch in the band’s career and the least commercially successful, but, even then, you get enjoyable outings like the Beach Boys flavoured “At My Most Beautiful” and “End of the World”-soundalike “Bad Day”.
Part Lies is also a definitive portrait in that it really shows the growth and maturity of the band – particularly in Michael Stipe’s vocal prowess. The earliest material, naturally, shows off his “mumbling” side of vocal delivery as a tick or a shtick, but by the time you get to the Document material, the lyrics may be as cryptic as ever, but his confidence and clarity starts to ring through. Along the same lines, the post-1997 material is a snapshot of a band really fumbling around, becoming more of a ballad-y type entity as they wrestle with the loss of drummer Berry. Just from an objective viewpoint, Part Lies is a startling example of a band making all sorts of leaps and transitions, for good or for ill, throughout a 30-odd year career – R.E.M. retained a stamp or template that was definitely their own, but they were also willing to branch out, experiment, tackle new things and approaches. The genius of Part Lies is that it flows magically song to song, for the most part – with the obvious exception being the shoehorning of “Country Feedback” in between such pop gems as “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”. All in all, despite the presence of the word “garbage” in the album’s title, there is very little of it here, unless you’re the type of person to turn your nose up at obvious attempts to reach the lowest common denominator with songs like “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People”.
As for the new songs, all I can say to long-time fans who have all 15 studio albums and beyond is that – unless you must have absolutely every song that R.E.M. ever released in lossless format – you’d probably be best served by using the Interwebs to find MP3s of the songs. As far as they go, the minute and a half “A Month of Saturdays” is a bit of a minimalist throwaway with its electronic-sounding drums, coming across as being more new wave than anything the band has pulled off prior to this. “We All Go Back to Where We Belong” fairs a bit better, and shows the band back in the sort of string-drenched ballad territory they were in before losing their long-time skin pounder – though it is a little on the lightweight side. Finally, “Hallelujah” – not a Leonard Cohen cover – is an alternately lilting and searing anthem that is probably the most interesting of the new cuts offered here. Despite the somewhat lacklustre nature of the new material, which was destined for Collapse Into Now’s proposed follow-up prior to the dissolution of the band, the worst thing that can be said about Part Lies is the packaging: the CD booklet was tightly shoved within the slits housing the second disc upon opening the package, making it hard to dislodge at risk of scratching the disc. In fact, that booklet is even harder to push back into the slit, and the liner notes are now currently sitting separate to my copy as I just don’t want to risk damaging some of the greatest music to come out of the ’80s, ‘90s and beyond.
If that’s the most troubling thing that one can say about Part Lies, well, it just goes to show the magnificent impact of the materials contained within. Of the 40 songs represented here, about 30 of them are absolute must-haves and disc one is nearly flawless in the sheer peerless-ness of the material. Certainly, there is also a fair amount of reward to be found on the slightly lesser second disc once you get past the classic Automatic to New Adventures-era songs. Part Lies, then, is absolutely the definitive collection to come from R.E.M. – the one to own and cherish and keep – and this one goes out to the ones who love what they’ve heard on the radio, but are unsure where to begin the begin. It may be the end of R.E.M. as we know it, but Part Lies will leave you feeling fine.