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R.E.M. - Green

R.E.M.’s predecessor to 1988’s Green was Document, the album that shockingly and inexplicably knocked down the doors to commercial success and found the band at an enviable fork in the road. Should they return to their jangly, navel-gazing, ahem, murmuring sound, or do they continue in the direction of Document, i.e., making thoughtful, challenging, and artistic choices, hardcore fans be damned? Granted, Life’s Rich Pageant showed clear signs of moving away from their earlier work (certainly “Begin the Begin” would fit perfectly on both of the follow-ups), it wasn’t until their extensive production collaboration with Scott Litt began, one that targeted a harder, fuller sound, that the band not only broke into the mainstream but also smashed the mold in which they risked being permanently cast. It’s hard to argue they made the wrong choice, as the resulting launch into unknown territory (Billboard’s Top Ten) soon commenced with the breakthrough hit “The One I Love.”

Leaving IRS to begin their new contract with Warner Brothers, R.E.M. were in strange territory by the time work began on Green. Perhaps they were enjoying their newfound stardom more than they thought they might, or perhaps the demands of a powerful corporation forced compromises, but R.E.M. were undoubtedly pushing the envelope. Interviews during the making of the album revealed the band was trying to write songs that weren’t predictable. Singer/lyricist Michael Stipe reportedly asked the band to “not write any more R.E.M. songs,” while Buck shifted from the trademarked minor chord moodiness to power chords in major keys. Lost among those explanations is the rationale for the straight-ahead pop aspect of R.E.M. that Green revealed.

The new album begins with the Stipe-ishly ironic “Pop Song 89,” then offers “Get Up,” and “Stand” over the first four numbers, the latter in particular a foreshadowing of the “Shiny Happy People” low point yet to come. Wedged between those commercial anthems is the mandolin driven ballad “You Are The Everything,” a musical predecessor to “Losing My Religion,” and a nod to guitarist Peter Buck’s obsession with the mandolin. Four songs in on my initial listen way back then, I’m fairly sure that I wasn’t alone when I thought, “What the fuck is this?”

“World Leader Pretend” and “Wrong Child” downshift noticeably from the fun and looseness of the first songs and thankfully reassured fans that the band wasn’t ready to become U2.0. The first one was recently added to an anti-Trump music collection shortly following the band’s cease and desist order to his campaign regarding the use of one of their songs. Viewed through today’s lens, “I raise the wall and I will be the one to knock it down” may be cherry-picked, but it’s no less prescient. The second, a lovely homage to special needs children, Stipe’s voice rising with shrill joy, serves as the perfect expression of a child’s acceptance; “I’m not supposed to be like this, but it’s ok-aaaaay!”

Picking up from the dynamic shifts started on Document, the second half of Green jumps out of the gate with the crunching foot stomp of boots on the ground in “Orange Crush,” a made-for-FM-rock-radio song that follows the formula of “The One I Love” in ringing arpeggios and angry, clear vocals. Smart, lyrical criticisms of U.S. imperialistic policy weren’t unique to the Scott Litt years, although the clarity certainly was. Yet, for the newer audience, it didn’t seem to matter if the lyrics were addressing the collateral damage of Agent Orange. What mattered was that it rocked and could easily follow the latest Def Leppard song in the AOR rotation.

This was an era of difficulty for R.E.M., particularly the quiet, shy Stipe. Grappling with the reality of mega-fame, coupled with corporate obligations and audience indifference has destroyed many an artist. If you spend your career trying to get a message across, you must be ready to accept that a catchy melody may not quite be The Trojan Horse you’d hoped. A broader audience translates into greater sales, which itself provides the reward of increased artistic license, an economics lesson that can be a crushingly ironic one as well.

“Turn You Inside Out” is more noisy protest, drummer Bill Berry bashes a steady hammer beat while bassist Mike Mills screams in the background, “I believe in what you do, I believe in watching you!” making this song even more eerily predictive of the America that was still thirty-odd years away. In fact, given the recurring themes of abusive power, the environment (on the tour that followed, Stipe would introduce this song as being dedicated to Exxon), and imperialism, Green was a record ahead of its time, and one that reminds us just how far we have to go and, sadly, how little progress we’ve made.

“Hairshirt,” takes a dated euphemism that is straight out of Stipe’s Southern-influenced lyrical notebook (“Katie bar the door,” “Losing my religion”). The titular item, a form of penance, may serve as either the apology for the windfall of fame and fortune the band had recently experienced: “It’s a beautiful life…all my life I’ve searched for this,” or a reminder that Stipe’s guarded personal life was something he didn’t have to apologize for at all: “Run a carbon-black test on my jaw and you’ll find it’s all been said before.”

The foreboding, churning “I Remember California,” is a reminder of the kind of angst that hangs over Fables of the Reconstruction; Buck’s twangy riffs reverberating beneath Stipe singing, “A simple wave I must confide, I guess we took us for a ride,” all “at the edge of the continent.” California may hold the musical title for most popular state, but this song from a quartet of southern alternative rockers is right up there. It’s this kind of threatening, fuck-you-hippy music that make artists like The Doors and X so perfectly Californian for those who aren’t on surfin’ safaris.

The last song, “Untitled,” hints at the album that would come next, Out of Time, with strong harmonies between Stipe and Mills, and is both uplifting send-off following the dour second half (“This song is here to keep you strong”), as well as a token of appreciation for all the fans who’ve “(S)tayed up late to hear your voice.”

Green isn’t the best R.E.M. album (my vote goes for Document), but it is, however, a solid offering from a band moving even farther away from the comforts of Athens, and all that implies.

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