Pop Song(s) 88
Probably the most important thing listeners need to know going into Green is that it’s an album best understood as a product of its time. No, I’m not taking about how splashy the reverb is on Bill Berry’s drums, though that’s certainly evident. R.E.M.‘s sixth LP was the first released after the ‘80s cult heroes rode “The One I Love” into the American top ten and left I.R.S. Records for the welcoming embrace of major label Warner Bros. Being the first representative from the alternative/indie rock sphere to have to confront the “we’ve hit the big time” issue, the quartet found itself wanting to follow divergent impulses on Green—address the situation explicitly, or carry on wherever its musical muse cared to take it as if nothing life-changing had happened.
In the end, both desires were indulged, and as such Green is pulled in different directions at different times. Much of the album is an extension of the winding yet oddly logical path the group had been trotting throughout its tenure with I.R.S., with the imprint of its most recent predecessors, the progressively more strident and assured Life’s Rich Pageant (1986) and Document (1987), understandably casting the strongest influence. There are also fresh new musical avenues being explored, best exemplified by the superb slate of songs based around Peter Buck’s newly acquired mandolin. Then there are the jarring moments where R.E.M. exhibits a meta-awareness that, be it the stalwart college radio audience or the fawning music press or the newly-acquired mainstream fans, it is under the pop cultural microscope, and its moves are being watched and carefully analyzed. In these instances, the band is playful, sending up its underground figurehead status with a wink, letting its audience know how absurd it finds the fact that this little old group from a Southern college town has become the hip new thing.
R.E.M.‘s self-consciousness circa 1988 had drastic impact on Green‘s running order, resulting in a first third of a record built around singles that are rather insistent on being taken as throwaway fluff. Listening to those cuts while bearing in mind that the band’s early ‘90s mega-stardom remained an inconceivable concept even post-Document, one can imagine how diehard fans might have absolutely lost their shit upon their first exposure to the album. “Pop Song 89” is an atypical R.E.M. opener, its knowing title, daft guitar riff, and vacuous lyrics marking it as positively lightweight in comparison to previous pole position occupants “Begin the Begin” and “Finest Worksong”, those rousing klaxon calls to building a better tomorrow. The sunny stomper “Get Up” owes a hefty debt to the catchiest of ‘60s garage pop nuggets, but band’s bemusement with its growing fame is most concentrated in “Stand”, where every aspect of its construction—Michael Stipe’s dance step instructions, Peter Buck’s wah-wah guitar solo, the two(!) shameless key changes in the closing chorus for extra oomph, and so on—is a frothy mixture of cliché pop tricks all in service of one big joke.
But if anyone was truly had, it was the band. R.E.M. had by that stage in its career become too damned good at what it did. All three of the aforementioned singles are actually pretty enjoyable, with even the comparatively flimsy “Pop Song 89” being charming enough to warrant a few replays. “Stand” especially may have been borne as a gut-busting lark, but it was to become R.E.M.‘s second top ten smash, and deservedly so—try as I might, that earworm of a chorus refuses to leave my brain even days after I extricate myself from the record. It helps that these moments, self-aware and calculated as they are, are never cynical or crass; instead, they graciously invite the audience into the fun.
The remaining spread of Green is equally impressive, different as it is. Here the political, humanist R.E.M. beloved of liberal-minded college students is to be found. Smack dab in between “Get Up” and “Stand” is “You Are the Everything”, the mesmerizing first of several folky mandolin laments that populate the record. An even better song in that vein is “The Wrong Child”, where Stipe’s heart-rending cries of “I’m not supposed to be like this / But it’s ok” indicate that the band has lost none of its potency or poignancy; in fact, it was the most emotionally moving moment the group had created up to that point. Determined and resolute, “World Leader Pretend” justifies being afforded the honor of being the first R.E.M. song to have its lyrics printed. The mannered pop frivolity from earlier is discarded completely by the record’s b-side, where “Orange Crush” (one of R.E.M.‘s top singles, hands down, and the album’s high water mark) and “I Remember California” reside. On paper, Green‘s divergent and at times incompatible directions should count against it (and in fairness, Green does end up being the least cohesive R.E.M. record from the ‘80s). Instead, it hangs together surprisingly well, inadvertent proof that R.E.M. was suited for the big time after all.
This 25th anniversary edition of Green is handsomely packaged. After a few tweaks to the format here and there, the R.E.M. reissue programs appears to have settled upon a packaging scheme that includes the remastered album, a bonus disc, liner notes featuring a historical essay, four individual portrait postcards of the band members, and a generously-sized fold-out poster, all consistently branded and housed in a hard clamshell case (it is this last development that admittedly pleased me the most upon opening my review copy—lift-top boxes are a consistent source of frustration if one forgets what type of lid a set has when picking it up off a table). The Green set also avoids a common weakness faced by some previous R.E.M. anniversary editions, opting to include a full concert on its bonus disc instead of demo takes only of interest to completest fans. Boasting a 21-song setlist, the 1989 show from Greensboro, North Carolina immediately gets “Stand” and “The One I Love” out of the way before proceeding to dig into deep album cuts and select singles from across the band’s catalog, as well as preview songs that would appear on the next LP. A tight, well-honed ensemble with enough rough edges still in evidence to ratchet up the excitement level, R.E.M. live in 1989 was at that engaging crossroads between the hard-scrabble tenacity of its underground years and comfortable security of its ‘90s boom period; from here on out, it’s unlikely future reissues will feature equally electrifying performances. A personal favorite from the setlist is the rumbling run through “Orange Crush”, which evidences the lingering influence of Gang of Four from the band’s formative days.
Whether to thumb a nose at fame or ignore it, that is the dilemma embodied by Green (a third option—embracing it—would not be entertained until later). With little precedent among its peers and a sense of contrariness among its members, R.E.M.‘s solution was ultimately to wing it. Such an approach hampers the album’s cohesiveness, but the audacity and finesse harbored by the band made Green the record where it was becoming unmistakable that this was a group that could hold its own against those enshrined in the classic rock canon. Listen to this brisk 40-minute CD and the accompanying live set, and marvel at how for every stumble, R.E.M. takes five leaps forward.