We are adding a new feature this month where we pick a musical artist, an actor, a director, or some other person or persons with a body of work and attempt to write about it all or at least a significant part. For our first one, we were somewhat inspired by the new podcast “R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME?” by comedians Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman, and we picked one of our favorite bands: hall-of-famers R.E.M. Band members Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Michael Mills, and Peter Buck gave us 30 years of music to enjoy and discuss.
Murmur (1983) – DJ
Murmur was R.E.M.’s first album after their ep Chronic Town. It’s hands down one of my favorite debut albums from any artist and I am not the only one to think so. Rolling Stone magazine picked Murmur as the number one album of 1983 over Michael Jackson’s Thriller. They had immediate college radio success. In 1983, I had no clue who R.E.M. was or their music. I was the one listening to Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, etc… It wasn’t until Green that R.E.M. really caught my eye. Not only is it one of my favorite debut albums but it may have replaced Life’s Rich Pageant as my favorite R.E.M album. It’s solid all the way through with few weak moments. On Murmur, R.E.M. consists of jangly guitars, amazing drumming, and undecipherable lyrical mumbling. Bill Berry’s drumming and Peter Buck’s guitar work lead the songs with Michael Stipe singing to the music. The best song on the album and one of my all-time favorites is “Sitting Still”. It rocks and the lyrics are unintelligible which makes it so easy to sing along with. “Radio Free Europe” and “Talk About the Passion” are solid and the two singles. “Perfect Circle” is a beautiful track and the album’s softest. I don’t think of R.E.M. as a southern band but you hear hints of it here and “Shaking Through” is the biggest example. A great song that I had previously overlooked. If there is a weak moment it’s the last track “West of the Fields”. It’s just ok. There is not a track I skip through, it’s pretty complete. The deluxe edition version has an extra disc of a Toronto performance with Murmer, Chronic Town and Reckoning songs played and it’s worth it for fans.
MG: Murmur is a magnificent debut album, and pretty close to a perfect one at that. Even though it’s sometimes hard to decipher Stipe’s lyrics, it doesn’t bother me on this album. Having the vocal track mixed at a similar level to the instruments is a bold choice that pays off, although I wouldn’t say that’s always the case on every song on the early albums. The artistic confidence the band demonstrates here is truly remarkable.
Reckoning (1984) – Mike G.
My biggest surprise from analyzing R.E.M’s catalog was just how good Reckoning is. I wish I could lay claim to following the band from the beginning, but like many other fans, I jumped on the bandwagon with the popularity of Document. So when I went back and picked up the rest of the catalog on CD, I was familiar with the hits from Reckoning (
“So. Central Rain” and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”) featured on the album Eponymous. I also discovered one of my favorite tunes from the band, “Seven Chinese Bros.”, which is one of Michael Stipe’s best vocal performances. Unfortunately, after that, I didn’t give the album much thought or play, but many years later I went back and found out what I was missing. I really don’t think there is a bum song on the album, starting off with the strong “Harborcoat” and finishing with a showcase for Bill Berry’s underrated drumming on “Little America”. In fact, I would say this album is close to being Berry’s finest technically, even if the drums are stronger in the sound mix on later albums. I appreciate that Stipe wanted his voice to be another instrument in the band, but it is refreshing to hear his voice a little clearer on this album, and thus be able to sing along with the chorus of a number of songs. If I were nitpicking, I’d say “Camera” is the album’s weakest spot, but truly this is a masterwork and as cohesive of an album as one will find.
DJ: I find this album to be the weakest of their early stuff. I agree Bill Berry’s drumming is fantastic. “Harborcoat” and “So. Central Rain” are two of my R.E.M. greatest hits. The rest of the album is okay by R.E.M. standards, still listenable though.
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) – DJ
There is a misconception that Fables of the Reconstruction is R.E.M.’s worst pre-Monster album. I was in that group and rarely played it, also never upgrading it from cassette to compact disc. I was always a fan of “Driver 8” and “Can’t Get There From Here” but the rest just didn’t interest me much. It was the coal mixed in between diamonds. Relistening to this full album for the first time in twenty years, I was dead wrong. This album is damn good and it flows nicely. There are some beautiful songs on here. “Good Advices” and “Green Grow the Rushes” are my two new favorite songs. “Good Advices” is the better of the two with Michael Stipe asking “What do you have to change?” seems like a great question for everything going on in this world today. “Kohoutek” has a great Stipe falsetto that reminds me of the Beatles psychedelic period. “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” is a great song to start with, literally pulling you into the album. Bill Berry’s drums are still plenty audible here but I can’t stress how important Mike Mills backing vocals are. The way he and Stipe harmonize and work off each other especially on this album is a marvel. Even the last track, an assumed throwaway, “Wendell Gee” is decent. The album does have some sadness in it. They recorded this during a harsh winter in London and you can hear their longing to get back to the southern U.S.
MG: I agree with you – up through song #6. I really wanted to join you in going against the prevailing wisdom of it being the worst album, but it just isn’t complete for me. I feel like this album is a step back for the band. For me, songs 7-11 aren’t terrible, but they lack distinction, and I can only decipher about 10 words of Stipe’s monotone lyrics. That may sound harsh, but I’m comparing it against their best work. It’s still a very good album, and I love the first half, I just wish the second half didn’t sound like B-sides.
Life’s Rich Pageant (1986) – Mike G.
So this has historically been my favorite album, and by listening to the whole catalog repeatedly, I was almost hoping it wouldn’t be anymore. Alas, it still comes out on top for me and I can’t help but proclaim it to be their artistic high point. This would make it into my top 10 albums of all time, and probably top 5. I know Document was their commercial takeoff, but in terms of their artistic confidence and abilities, Life’s Rich Pageant represents R.E.M stepping out on the big stage. It’s hard for me to single out songs because this is one album I rarely listen to hits off of – I always just play the whole thing. The band really stepped up the songwriting, with Stipe mixing his trademark poetic lyrics with more memorable and catchy choruses. Peter Buck’s strong guitars kick off the album with “Begin the Begin”, and his guitar work is just as powerful when done acoustically on “Swan Swan H”. Vocally, I feel like this is Stipe at his happiest, and the album has a good sense of humor, such as on the short track ” Underneath the Bunker”. If there’s a song that’s worn a little bit thin it would be “Fall On Me”, mostly because an ex-girlfriend overplayed it, but with distance from that time in my life, I still enjoy it. Mills does a great job on vocals on “Superman”, and it always strikes me as a true feel-good song. By the way, perhaps this was well known and it just eluded me, but I never knew that “Superman” was a cover song. As I review each of the tracks, I truly cannot find any weaknesses on this album.
DJ: It’s weird but for me this album has dropped slightly over time for me but it is still very good. The rockers like “Begin the Begin” and “I Believe” are forceful. I can’t deal with “Swan Swan H” but it’s a very complete album.
Document (1987) – DJ
Document is where R.E.M. started to get noticed by the mainstream music listener. They had their first top 10 hit in “The One I Love” and their sound also started to move towards the mainstream. For me, it seemed to mark the beginning of R.E.M. also becoming more political and outspoken on many different issues and I can hear it in their music. Overall I felt the album was half good, all my favorite stuff is on what was on my cassette side one or the “page” side. The fantastic “Exhuming McCarthy” where Stipe compares McCarthyism to Reagan-era politics is blistering and includes a sample of Joseph Welch’s “Have you no decency speech?” from the McCarthy hearings. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is this rapid firing burst of energy with a satirical title. People either hate it or love it and over time, I may have fallen into either category. “Disturbance at the Heron House” is another upbeat favorite of mine and per Stipe is about Animal Farm by George Orwell. “Finest Worksong” and “Welcome to the Occupation” are also solid. I do struggle with side 2 or the “leaf” side including “The One I Love”. I find none of the songs overly remembered. Despite my Jekyll and Hyde feelings for Document, it is the perfect segue to Green – their worldwide breakthrough.
MG: It’s interesting that your feeling about this album seems to mirror mine about Fables. Even if I’ve grown weary of the two breakout hits, I still enjoy this album all the way through. The first five songs are all awesome and notably uptempo for the band. I like the grittier electric guitar sound and the emphasis in the mix on Berry’s booming drums. I know the second side slows things down a bit, but I have always considered “King Of Birds” one of their hidden gems (even if I always think it’s title is “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”) and “Oddfellows Local 151” always had a certain eeriness to it that I liked.
Green (1988) – Mike G.
I knew R.E.M. was prolific, but I never put it together that they were putting out a new studio album every year up to Green. There was a reason for diehard fans to be wary of this album, as it was their follow-up to Document (their first to go platinum), and it marked the band’s departure from smaller IRS Records to the massive Warner Bros. label. It’s an album of two extremes for me – including several of my favorite songs by the band, and two that I despise. In our recent post “Songs We Hate By Bands We Love”, DJ mentioned that “Hairshirt” was the universally loathed song on the album, but he actually was thinking of “Wrong Child”. Stipe’s whiny delivery and torturous way he draws out the line “But it’s okayeeeeee!” can practically make my ears bleed. In that same post, I mentioned my disdain for “Stand”, although it’s rather pleasant compared to “Wrong Child”. Maybe it was an inside joke by the band about making an intentional “pop hit”, but along with its cheesy video, “Stand” just comes off as obnoxious. But what about the good songs? The album starts off strong with “Pop Song ’89” and the guitar-driven “Get Up”. The brilliantly written Vietnam-themed “Orange Crush” and “Turn You Inside Out” are two more harder-edge rock songs that are standouts. The remaining songs are mellower, but still musically interesting, although unlike their earlier work Stipe’s vocals are front-and-center. It’s nice to be able to discern the lyrics, and it makes the songs more memorable. For example, these lyrics from “Hairshirt” flit across my consciousness often over the years: “Run a carbon black test on my jaw/And you will find/It’s all been said before“. The only downside of featuring the vocals is that the musicianship takes more of a supportive role, but that’s the way most bands run things – with the lead singer front-and-center. Overall, this album proved that R.E.M. could maintain their artistry under the new and intense glare of worldwide popularity.
DJ: I fixed the post, it’s clearly “The Wrong Child” that blows and stops the album from being their best. I love this album, I am tolerant with “Stand”, I love “World Leader Pretend” and all the songs you mentioned. It was the first R.E.M. album that I played to death and one I go back to frequently.