Saturday, October 10, 2009

470. REM Document- Thank God for 1987

Album: Document.

Artist: REM

Year: 1987

Genre: College radio rock.

1. Finest Worksong

2. Welcome To The Occupation

3. Exhuming McCarthy

4. Disturbance At The Heron House

5. Strange

6. It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

7. The One I Love

8. Fireplace

9. Lightnin' Hopkins

10. King Of Birds

11. Oddfellows Local 151

The careers of REM and U2 followed similar paths until they diverged somewhere in the nineties. Both bands had low-key beginnings and grew their fanbase by regular touring. Both groups featured a similar line up and were fronted by vocalists who wrote obscure lyrics with a social justice edge. The fortunes of the two acts turned in 1987 when they both released their commercial breakthrough albums, Joshua Tree for U2 and Document for REM. They both used their mainstream success as a springboard for further commercial and critical highpoints which saw them as the biggest acts in the world. The late eighties and early nineties were big years for Dublin and Georgia’s finest who ruled the world’s music charts and performed for huge audiences. Neither was content to rest on their laurels and felt the need to experiment and expand their sound including other elements into the Bass/guitars/drums/vocals mix. From there the fortunes of the two acts started to diverge. While Bono and co maintained their claim as one of the biggest bands in the world, Stipe and his cohorts saw their sales decline and found themselves performing in smaller and smaller venues.

When looking back on their respective careers in 2003 the contributors to Rolling Stone Magazines top 500 list decided that U2 deserved to have five albums in the list while REM only warranted three. They also decreed that Document should loiter down in the bottom fifty while The Joshua Tree deserved a top fifty ranking at number 26.

I’ve owned The Joshua Tree for years and only heard Document all the way through for the first time this week. I have to say I can’t understand why they’re separated by 400 albums and can only conclude that REM’s fall from critical favour in 2003 must have contributed.

Document is a really great album, it doesn’t have the gravity or serious tone that Joshua Tree does but some would say that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Stipes tongue is in his check as much as Bono’s heart is on his sleeve. While REM’s lyrics address weighty topics (Reaganism for example) they choose to use a slightly lighter tone. The highpoint of this ethos (And indeed the album and probably of the entire of 1987) is It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine) which really is one of the all time great songs. As if the title alone isn’t enough to love it to bits the song kicks along like no other tune since Subterranean Homesick Blues (which it’s indebted too as much as Dylan’s anthem is indebted to Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business) but its scattershot verses work so well because the chorus is so catchy. There have been songs on albums that I’ve reviewed in this countdown that have become permanently lodged in my brain. There’s one that I can’t even type for fear that it will get stuck in there again and I’ll have to exorcise it by banging my head on the table. Bugger. Too late… it’s there. The song is Poor Little Beggar Girl by Richard and Linda Thompson and it’s currently my least favourite thing ever. Thankfully It’s the End of the World is an antidote to that track because it’s catchiness is so all encompassing that it boots any other track from my brain and refuses any other refrain even the slightest foothold. REM wrote themselves a magnificent song and then milked it for all it’s worth with a great counterpoint vocal (it’s time I had some time alone) and a great arrangement. As a song it works better than anything on Joshua Tree, all of which sounds tame on the album compared to later live versions.

What Joshua Tree has that Document lacks is a sound. That U2 sound which they seemed to perfect on Joshua Tree and is unmistakably theirs. Only the Beatles have as distinctive a style which you can recognize immediately. Stipe’s voice might be famous but the rest of the band could easily be one of hundred’s of other groups. That’s not to say their bad, far from it, but they’re not light years from other groups kicking around at the time.

But what Document possesses that U2 lacks is a lot more colour. After track four (Bullet the Blue Sky) Joshua Tree does tend to sound fairly similar. There’s a lot more variety on Document and as a result I think it’s a stronger album. Granted there is a really misplaced cover (Strange definitely the album’s lowpoint). But that aside there isn’t a weak track.

If your exposure to REM stops with Losing my religion and Man on the Moon then can I recommend you dip into the back catalogue and pull out this little gem. Along with Joshua Tree it helped to kill of “eighties music” and usher us into the nineties. It really was the end of the (musical) world as we knew it.

Highlight: “Leonard Bernstein!”

Lowlight: Strange. A real lemon.

Influenced by: The Monkees apparently, or so Michael Stipe says.

Influenced: American college kids who wanted to find a bridge between their musical interests and their sociology lectures.

Favourite Amazon customer review quote: “Product was in excellent shape, Item cost & shipping were reasonably priced, and arrived in a very timely manner considering I ordered it late in the 2006 holiday season. Thank you AMAZON.”

-That’s it, that’s the entire review. For the last time people- Amazon is not ebay! You review the product not the delivery. Sheesh.

So does REM stand for Really Entertaining Music or Rank, Effluent Muck? Let me know below.

1 comment:

  1. David,

    I love this album. For me, it was the first REM album I got into and the one I come back to more often.

    Love It!!!


    Steve (Chaos Agent #2)