Athens, Georgia’s R.E.M. may be a household name in most circles these days but when they released their fifth studio album in 1987, they were just getting started. This was to be the band’s final album on indie label I.R.S. before jumping to the majors the following year. It was their first time working with Scott Litt as producer, a collaboration that would carry them through their most successful years, right up to 1998. He helped pick them up where they left off, further cleaning up the production work they did on “Life’s rich pageant”, and took them into rock and power pop territory on “Document”, scoring the band their first hit single in the process.
I distinctly remember when “Monster” was released in 1994, the raw fuzz and rock was like a kick to the head. After the mandolin heavy, folk-influenced rock of “Out of time” and “Automatic for the people”, it was easy to forget that R.E.M. was originally a rock band. Slipping “Document” on every once in a while can be a good reminder of this fact. Indeed, there’s a bit of anger here but it’s restrained, Michael Stipe showing some politics and Peter Buck giving us reason to believe in rock beyond the hair metal prevalent at the time.
There’s a lot of good music on “Document”, some of R.E.M.’s best, but this album deserves to be remembered for more than just the songs. It is about how it positioned the band to be huge, critically and commercially, and was an important cog in the push for college radio rock to the mainstream, laying the groundwork for the alternative rock explosion later on. My three picks for you from this album might be obvious to you, they certainly were to me, but here they are nonetheless. Enjoy.
”Finest worksong”: “The time to rise has been engaged.” Yes indeed. That pretty much says it, right there. I’ve read that as soon as they wrote and recorded this tune, the band knew it was going to be the first song on the album. A blaze of guitar precedes the aforementioned opening line, likely requiring a volume adjustment on the stereo a moment after pressing play, up or down, depending on your age. But it’s not just the guitars that are aggressive here. The drums are muscular, the bass provides another melody layer, and of course, Stipe is just belting it out. This is rock! This is a very fine final single with which for R.E.M. to bow out on their indie career. Turn it up and play it again.
”The one I love”: During my last couple of years of university, I shared an apartment just off campus with two friends, Meagan and John, and we regularly hosted get-togethers/drink-ups that went late into the night. Invariably, as the party was winding down, our friend Terry would pick up Meagan’s acoustic guitar and strum out a few tunes, appeasing our requests if he knew the songs. It took him a while but he eventually figured out that we always asked for “The one I love”, just to hear him drunkenly struggle with hitting the high “Fire!” note in the chorus line. Still, he always appeased us. The song was R.E.M.’s first hit single and deservedly so, but it was mostly because people mistook the song as a love song. It’s like we chose not to listen to Stipe past the opening line and ignore: “This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind, a simple prop to occupy my time.” Or maybe the pop hook and simple song structure had us all fooled. Great tune, nonetheless.
”It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)”: “That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, and aeroplanes. And Lenny Bruce is not afraid.” This is easily my favourite R.E.M. tune and it was comfortable in the top spot when I unleashed My Top Five Tunes by the band last October. In that post, I recounted a story of debated lyrics, something I’m sure happened quite a bit with the band, prior to this album and its predecessor, when Michael Stipe’s singing was more mumbling and was placed lower in the mix. On this track, he is relatively clear. It’s just that he’s throwing a lot at us. Rambling off a litany of historical disasters and pop culture references, he piles it all up like a precarious Jenga tower that wobbles and trembles with the just as rapid-fire guitars and drums. And if it does all fall apart, R.E.M. is fine with this and so should we be. Because we can just press play again. The music video is worth mentioning too, given that it doesn’t show the band at all, but a teenager hanging out with his skateboard in a house in shambles. And this always reminded me of the abandoned house near our high school, to where we would sometimes sneak off during our spare periods in our latter years. We imagined ourselves in some ravaged post apocalyptic world, instead of a house ravaged by ignorant teens like ourselves, and not unlike like that miscreant in the video. I can’t say this enough though: Incredible tune.
Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:
10. Dead Can Dance “Within the realm of the dying sun”
9. Spaceman 3 “The perfect prescription”
8. The Jesus And Mary Chain “Darklands”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Jane’s Addiction”
6. The Sisters of Mercy “Floodland”
5. The Cure “Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me”
4. U2 “The joshua tree”
3. The Smiths “Strangeways, here we come”
You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.