"Orange Crush" and more
If you want a huge, strident anthem that will sound fantastic when cranked to full volume, “Finest Worksong” is the best such example R.E.M. has to offer from its songbook. Arguably the greatest first track from any of the band’s LPs, “Finest Worksong” is simply monumental, a tune that manages to be muscular without being brawny or leaden. Commanding attention from the outset due to Berry’s arena-ready drums, the song largely hangs on one chord (and Buck’s ringing single-note lick) in order to firmly stake its ground, upping the ante courtesy of a surging chord change that occurs when the band hits the chorus, which in turn augments Stipe’s chest-bursting call of “Finest hour”.
One commonly-held assumption about R.E.M. is that it’s, well, wimpy (I distinctly remember an installment of VH1’s I Love the ‘80s series where Stewart Copeland jokingly berates the band for seemingly being physically incapable of playing chords). But the group can indeed rock when it opts to, as the vaguely U2-ish “Orange Crush”, the lead single from its 1988 Warner Bros. debut Green, proves beyond all doubt. Launching with Peter Buck aggressively strumming muted guitar strings for a jarring, percussive effect (a motif that recurs here and there throughout the song), “Orange Crush” is driven by a taut anxiety—fitting as the song deals with an American soldier’s experiences in the Vietnam War. The tension is alleviated only by a soaring chorus so great, it doesn’t even need actual words.
Also from Green is this churning chordal rocker dabbed with melodic British Invasion touches. The verses may feel a little too circular, but you’ll appreciate their value once you realize they are set-up for the choruses, where the introductory chord progression returns to rousing effect. And yes, Stewart Copeland, Peter Buck is in fact playing barre chords in this song. They’re distorted and loud, too.
(Automatic for the People, 1992)
“Nightswimming” contains a pretty handy test: if you can get past the grating way Stipe sings the line “Deserves a quiet night” in the first few seconds of the studio version, you have just withstood potentially the most off-putting aspect of R.E.M.’s music. If you’ve decided to stick around for the song’s remainder, you’ll be rewarded by a beautifully moving piano ballad that showcases Stipe at his most emotionally naked. Tinged with bittersweet nostalgia, “Nightswimming” has the vocalist reminiscing wistfully about bygone days skinny-dipping with old friends in the Georgia moonlight. Stipe so capably crafts the sensations of that time and place that by the end you might feel you were once there, too.
In one last example of R.E.M. adopting another stylistic guise, here the paired-down trio of Stipe, Buck, and Mills lovingly replicates the symphonic pop of mid-‘60s Beach Boys. “At My Most Beautiful” is at its core an exquisitely arranged record, with its marching bassline, horns, sleighbells, and “Doo-doo doo” harmonies impeccably placed. The one recognizably-R.E.M. element is Stipe’s voice; nevertheless, the singer plays down his trademark keening for an understated and soothing delivery. That approach is perfectly suited for the song’s lyrics, which illustrate how the everyday mundane can take on a romantic quality in the eyes of someone deeply in love (“I read bad poetry / Into your machine / I save your messages / Just to hear your voice”). R.E.M. could veer into outright corny territory at times whenever it took a stab at conveying happiness, but here the group manages the execution with just the right touch.