"King of Birds" was my least favorite song!
“Listen TO me. Listen TO me. Listen to MEEEEEEE! Listen TO MEEEEEEE! Listen TO MEEEEEEE! Listen TO MEEEEEEE! Listen to MEEEEEEEE!”
So Michael Stipe ended “Welcome to the Occupation”, the second song on R.E.M. No. 5 Document, as before-and-after a dividing line as any band ever drew. Basically, the 1987 album made everything clearer, both the band’s sound and its hitmaking potential. As a sizable cult band playing a clearly demarcated genre—jangle pop plus speedy punk-inspired raveups—early R.E.M. was largely ignored by the masses. But Document went platinum, “The One I Love” became the band’s first Top 10 hit, and they were bequeathed a rich life of soundtrack appearances by “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, so music listeners have been unable to avoid them since. Today’s non-fans and casual radio listeners could be excused for not knowing any R.E.M. songs from the first four albums, but everyone knows songs from Document and beyond.
This was by design. Oh, they still hedged their bets to the press—“I don’t see this as the record that’s going to blast apart the chart,” guitarist Peter Buck told Rolling Stone in one of those endearing-in-retrospect interviews—but as the liner notes to this handsome 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition make clear, the band felt they could be big and they were curious to see how big. Thanks to Buck’s distinctive folk-rock chime, you can imagine Document songs like “Disturbance at the Heron House” fitting into their earlier setlists, but there’s no R.E.M. precedent for the steely skyscrapers of riff and drum that kick off “Finest Worksong”, or for the stiff bubblegum funk “Exhuming McCarthy”. (They played it better live.) With producer Scott Litt, they pared the R.E.M. sound into what people expected radio rock to sound like: memorable songs first, played precisely by beefed-up instrumental parts, with a commanding singer presiding over the whole affair.
Before Document, Stipe’s vocals were famously “mumbled”, buried in the band’s mixes and enunciated kind of weirdly. This was less true by album number four, Lifes Rich Pageant—though still, good luck transcribing “Fall On Me” without help—but Document’s clarity made it easier to write his lyrics into your diary and commit them to memory. And if you were one of those new consumers hearing Stipe’s lyrics for the first time, what exactly did you hear? “The time to rise has been engaged!” Something about “landed gentry” and a “meeting at the monument.” A whole lot about fire. (Ever self-aware, the band wrote “File Under Fire” on the sleeve.) Apparently all this nonsense was “political.”
Or maybe it wasn’t nonsense. The band was right to put Stipe front and center, because he knew how to make abstract lyrics work. If you hear his lyrics as rock’s answer to symbolist poetry—and you pretty much have to, because they don’t make sense otherwise—Document sounds heated about something, specifically about the body politic, even if you can’t translate it into concrete issues. In “Finest Worksong”, the nagging passive voice—“What we want and what we need has been confused”—parodies union and socialist non-speak, and thus it makes you feel the paralysis that quickly sets in when groups of people try to tackle large issues. What’s the source of the confusion? Who did the confusing? How do we distinguish what we want from what we need? No one can say, but fortunately R.E.M. is on the scene to blare through the muddle like a siren. Even if you only sort of know who Stipe is lampooning, his catchphrases offer endless reinterpretation. Heck, I once adapted his catchiest Wall Street putdown—“You’re sharpening stones / And walking on coals / To improve your business acumen”—for use in a Pitbull review. I imagine if you yelled it at an actual trader, he’d just look at you funny and tell you to get a job.
Unfortunately, all this abstract writing about real life issues led to some insufferable lyrics from other bands. You can’t really blame Stipe for this. Take the song “Welcome to the Occupation”, generally thought to concern American intervention in South America. (“Fire on the hemisphere below,” “sugar cane and coffee cup” and whatnot.) Regardless of whether that’s what Stipe had in mind, most casual listeners would never settle on that meaning without reading about it in the rock press. But most readers of the rock press aren’t casual listeners. So even as R.E.M. drew a bigger and bigger audience with their accessible music and memorably unclear lyrics, a more obnoxious strain of fan was reading articles about R.E.M. and deciding that this was the way to write songs. R.E.M.’s success may or may not have led to idiotic “political” lyrics from ‘90s alt-rock bands, including Nirvana and Pearl “Glorified Version of a Pellet Gun” Jam, most of whom had the good sense to garble their lyrics like early Stipe. But it certainly revived the market for insularity among rock fans who read rock magazines. Just like in the days of British art rock and “American Pie”, fawning over obscure lyrics would soon become a fan pastime again, pitting those in the know against fans of hair metal and Bel Biv Devoe.
Still, these songs are good. Side One shoulda been hit after hit, including a blazing cover of Wire’s “Strange” and the death-defying “End of the World”, rendered bombastic by the rhythm section and pensive by Buck’s complex chords. The slightly weaker Side Two is full of experiments, starting with the death-deserving “The One I Love” (“FiRRRRRRRe!”) and ending with the creepy religion tale “Oddfellows Local 151”, where Stipe’s repeated cry of “firehoussssse” douses all the fire imagery that’s come before. “Fireplace” sets a Shaker speech to a weird chord progression, with great sax from the Flesh Eaters’ Steve Berlin. “Lightnin’ Hopkins” boasts Gang of Four-worthy blocks of guitar noise. “King of Birds” need not exist. Easily one of the top hundred albums of 1987.
Because this is a 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, it comes in an attractive and sturdy cardboard box containing a band poster and a photo card of each band member. You can hang them in your locker, black out the guys’ eyes, whatever you wanna do. There’s also a September ‘87 live set from Holland. The recording is so-so and you probably won’t play it much, but it’s certainly interesting to hear how well they could play live. Even the soon-to-be-retired Murmur songs rock with newfound force. Drummer Bill Berry was particularly monstrous during this period, bassist Mike Mills came up with cool parts and creative backup vocals, and Buck, though he rarely played anything off the cuff, shaped the songs and filled out the sound. Presiding over the whole affair is Stipe, a shy weirdo from Georgia who rarely talks between songs, convincing the world he’s a rock star while he begs for some time alone.
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