R.E.M.: Unplugged 1991 & 2001 – The Complete Sessions

Too much Up and Reveal, not enough Murmur and Reckoning.
Unplugged 1991-2001: The Complete Sessions
Warner Bros.

For people who are wondering if this item is worth their hard-earned cash or valuable space on their hard-drive, I’ll just say that I might prefer this version of “Perfect Circle” to the original, which was, as you probably already know, perfect to begin with. An organ replaces the guitar and bongos replace the echoing drums, and R.E.M. from the 1990s being R.E.M. from the ’90s, Michael Stipe sings each word with clarity instead of lovably mumbling through them, and there are fantastic backing vocals throughout. If the original was a gentle, earthy ballad to soothe your alcohol-arrested brain to sleep, this version is similarly gentle, but sunny, a soundtrack for the next morning when you contemplate last night’s mistakes.

R.E.M. were once a great band, and I don’t mean before they called it a day, I mean specifically from 1982’s Chronic Town EP through 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant. They were a democratic band at its best, with every member contributing something to make every song special: Bill Berry’s deliberate thwacks, each full of life and able to pound life into you; Peter Buck possessing a Midas touch, except only turning arpeggios into gold; Mike Mills driving the band forward regardless if he was on keys or bass; Michael Stipe singing some words clearly (“RAY-DIO STAY-SHUN!”; “CA-TA-PULT! CATAPULT!”; “I’M SORRY!”) or mumbling through others, but capable of admirably attaching emotion to either style.

Unfortunately, Unplugged 1991-2001 — The Complete Sessions barely touches on this period. You’ll find a couple of stragglers: the just-mentioned “Perfect Circle” from Murmur, a slower and more piano-based “So. Central Rain” from Reckoning, competent readings of a couple of songs from Lifes Rich Pageant.

And then something happened. 1987’s Document was R.E.M.’s first foray into arena rock; Michael Stipe began yelling out the hooks of every song in a way that he didn’t really need to before. (The two biggest songs from that album can be found here, though the urgency of both “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” and “The One I Love” are completely gone.) It got them a major label deal for 1988’s Green and that’s when the band slowly started to lose the mystery — the identity — of its previous albums. Michael Stipe’s vocals were mixed louder than ever and backing vocals seemed to be a necessity in every song, mixed as loudly as the lead vocals. Bill Berry pounded his drums louder but with no real purpose, sounding like a drum machine at times; Peter Buck picked up a mandolin and used it to drive practically half their songs, and Mike Mills got lost in the mix. Sure, they still had a great song or two up their sleeve; I’m partial to the counterpoint in “Get Up” (which has a wonderful breakdown here that receives an enthusiastic audience response). Meanwhile, unplugged or not, “Pop Song 89” still reminds me of the Doors song (“Hello, I Love You”), which still reminds me of a Kinks song (“All Day and All of the Night”).

1991’s Out of Time continued the same hit-or-miss ratio: “Losing My Religion” is still great as it ever was but the only positive thing I have to say about the half-assed funk of “Radio Song” here is that KRS-One doesn’t show up for his useless cameo as on the original. They thankfully add a jangly riff to the melody-less and slow-moving “Low”, but it’s otherwise still melody-less and slow-moving. Regrettably, the bulk of the material from the second disc of Unplugged comes from 1998’s Up, which is either a complete failure or an admirable experiment depending on where you stand, and 2001’s Reveal, which was… what it was, while 1992’s Automatic for the People, the band”s last great album, and 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, probably its second best from the 90s, are only represented by one song each, and not even close to the best song off either album. And though “Find the River”, “Electrolite”, and the Beach Boys-esque “At My Most Beautiful” are good songs, the live versions here don’t offer any reason to listen to them over their studio compartments.

In less words, a 31-track collection that only sometimes shows the greatness of what was once a great band. For fans of their output from 1998-2001, but the real question is: are there any?

RATING 7 / 10