When R.E.M. finally broke through to mainstream success with 1987’s Document, they did it the way musicians dream of. After loading up with critical accolades and rounding up a sizable fan base with incessant touring, they needed only to deliver an album that continued their steady artistic growth and featured a few catchy singles. That they did, giving the world “Finest Worksong”, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, and “The One I Love” while keeping their indie credibility completely intact. Document provided the launch pad for R.E.M.‘s phenomenal popular success, but more importantly, it staked out an ideal position for the band to develop. While their impressive sales guaranteed them a spot at any record company they chose, they had also displayed enough artistic integrity to give them the authority to change and grow as they saw fit. Quite simply, they had managed to become rock stars who could ignore financial concerns and write whatever music they felt like, a rare and enviable thing indeed.
Since R.E.M. has long since entered the American consciousness as a bona fide institution, it’s well worth a trip back in time to the point at which they started becoming one and stopped being just another garage band. The release of Document on the still-trippy DVD Audio format provides an excellent opportunity to do just that while recasting the experience as simultaneously classic and modern, adjectives that apply equally well to the band itself. To begin with, the DVD-A can’t be played on a normal stereo. In order for the experience to happen at all, you need a DVD player; in order for the experience to be worthwhile, you need stereo speakers hooked up to your DVD player; in order for the experience to be much more exciting than simply putting your regular copy of Document into your regular CD player, you need to have a surround sound setup connected to your DVD player. Sound elitist yet? It certainly explains the relative rarity of these things as of yet, and despite its epochal status, Document ends up providing as much trepidation as excitement about this new medium when experienced in it.
Just as DVD’s reinvigorated the home video milieu with bonus material, so too does DVD Audio offer up extras to present existing works in sweeter packages. Music videos are natural choices, but tying them even more intimately to the way we consume albums further endangers the purely auditory musical experience, so it’s nice to see that none are included here. The only special feature is a projection of the album’s lyrics on the TV that flips automatically as the music plays. This is perhaps not the best thing for Michael Stipe’s reputation, resting as it does on impenetrable mystique. When the words are laid so luminously bare, it almost seems as if the next time the virtual page turns, it will reveal that Stipe was an unregenerate bullshit artist who hoodwinked critics and laymen alike with his nonstop barrage of highbrow references and cryptic imagery. That wasn’t actually the case, but some skepticism is only natural. Namedropping Lester Bangs was certainly a surefire way to get good notices from the countless writers doing their flaccid imitations of him, and Stipe’s leftist concerns earned him earnest young fans apparently not put off by his vagueness. In the final count, though, it’s hard to doubt his sincerity no matter how many artistic pratfalls it led him to make. Even when misguided, passion is more worthy of admiration than fashionable cynicism.
With regards to sonic innovations, DVD Audio boasts increased resolution for the diehard audiophiles, but its most notable feature is its use of the surround sound format. This yields more separation than has been possible in musical recordings since the advent of stereo, and while that’s enough to make the disposable-income crowd go mad with lust, it remains to be seen whether or not this new trick is going to be a sonic landmark or a pricey distraction that will go the way of quadrophonic sound. In any case, it’s a funny way to hear R.E.M., a band whose no-nonsense approach seems firmly at odds with such stuff. By resurrecting the sound of groups like the Byrds and Big Star, they stated that simplicity and directness are virtues strong enough to outlast flashy trends. With high-quality and virtually permanent pressings of this music already available for less money on compact disc, it’s worth pondering: will this DVD Audio copy of Document last as long as its authors’ careers or as short as, say, Gary Numan’s?