Saturday, March 11, 2023

REM #5: Document

Release Date: August 31, 1987

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Michael Mills (bass, keyboards); Bill Berry (percussion)

Produced by Scott Litt & REM

Side One: Finest Worksong; Welcome to the Occupation; Exhuming McCarthy; Disturbance at the Heron House; Strange; It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine); 

Side Two: The One I Love; Fireplace; Lightnin' Hopkins; King of Birds; Oddfellows Local 151

Document marked another step in REM's rise to mainstream recognition, aided by two hit singles "The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I feel fine). 

"Finest Worksong" opens the album, an alt-folk rock song:

The Time to Rise has been engaged
You're better best to rearrange

Unlike their contemporary Billy Bragg who drew directly upon the style of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, REM settled into their own sleek progressivism in response to the Reagan/Thatcher '80s. "Welcome to the Occupation" features oblique references to American diplomacy in Central America, profit, and its consequences. "Exhuming McCarthy" in a similar vein calls out reactionary forces in America which were slightly more stealth in 1987, and far more open and brazen these days. "Disturbance at the Heron House" is sustained by easy going hooks with wry social commentary. "Strange" was a cover of a song by the British punk band Wire, with REM channeling '70s rock with autobiographical lyrics about stage fright.

Maybe the first iconic song REM recorded, "It's the End of the End of the World (as we know it)" features rapid fire lyrics in the vein of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" satirizing late 20th Century Millennialism, with references to the band's own history. It got constant airplay during the '90s and was infamously banned by Clear Channel after 9/11.

Side two opened with another hit single, the anti-love song "The One I Love." "Fireplace" featured a first, a saxophone on an REM record - and a return to more surreal lyrics. "Lighnin' Hopkins" appears to have no connection to the legendary bluesman, other than Stipe's vaguely bluesy vocal. It sounds like New Wave reinterpreting the blues. The meditative "King of Birds" is focused on the musings of an aging man who might be a genius, thematically like the songs on Fables of the Reconstruction. In a similar vein, the closing track "Oddfellows Local 151" returns to the Southern Gothic themes REM had explored on past records - a great addition to the Halloween season.

Document suits the uneasy mood of the late '80s with songs shifting between the ominous and playful. Also highlighting the shifting sensibilities from within the band, one ambitious for fame and radio play, and the other showcasing the band's experimental side. 

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