REM – Document – 25th anniversary edition (review)

REM – Document – 25th anniversary edition (IRS/Capitol) review

The album that changed the playing field for alternative music in the Eighties celebrates a quarter century

When REM entered the studio in 1987 to record their fifth album, they had a decision to make: continue as the darlings of the college radio underground, or reach for something bigger.  They knew that their brand of Byrds-meets-Velvet Underground jangle pop was not going to take them to the next level.  So instead, they teamed up with co-producer Scott Litt and every member of the band upped the ante for one of the group’s best albums.  IRS/Capitol is celebrating Document with a 25th anniversary edition, featuring the original album in remastered form, an excellent concert from the tour that followed, and a booklet, featuring insightful recollections from members of the band.  There’s even four postcards and a large poster of the band.

The album’s first single, “The One I Love,” released three weeks before the album, acted as the “shot heard ‘round the world” – sending notice that this was a different REM.   The excitement and energy infused into the song’s 3:18 length is palpable. The track begins with a thunderous drum fill from Bill Berry, then a gritty lead guitar line from Peter Buck.  During the chorus, Michael Stipe belts out the single word “Fire!” while bassist Mike Mills fills the background with a cascade of harmonies.  This was, by far, the most rocking, and the most polished song the band had ever constructed – it showed everyone that REM wasn’t fucking around anymore.

The album sounds like a band going for broke.  The guitars are loud and there’s very little of the jangly guitar sound that had been their signature.  Instead, that’s replaced with a multitude of power chords.  In fact, the entire band answers the call.  There’s a marked improvement in drummer Bill Berry’s playing.  His supple use of the high hat cymbal helps give a groove to the band’s sound, while bassist Mike Mills lays down some of his funkiest and most inventive lines to date.  Surprisingly, there’s several actual guitar solos from Peter Buck, something not heard from before on an REM record.  But, probably the biggest change was in singer Michael Stipe.  Up until that point, he had made a name for himself by mumbling the lyrics to their first four albums.  Here, his words are easily understood – and the low register warbling is gone.  Stipe truly steps out into the spotlight on Document, something he had shied away from on previous albums.  He begins to explore some of the higher register and actually stretch to see what his voice could do.  And, while Stipe handled almost all of the lead vocal duties throughout the group’s career, bassist Mike Mills’ background vocals are so crucial here, he’s really a second lead singer.

The album kicks off with “Finest Worksong,” a statement of purpose.  Berry hammers out a funky beat while Stipe sings “the time to rise / has been engaged.”  There’s a sense of urgency and the vocals are upfront and easily discernible.

The band seemed willing to try anything new – the double-tracked vocals (one high, one low) gives “Welcome to the Occupation” a much darker feel as Stipe pleads “listen to me!” on the chorus.  Buck picks up the dulcimer for “King of Birds,” while Steve Berlin provides a soulful sax solo on “Fireplace.”  They even lay down a danceable rhythm on “Lightnin’ Hopkins.”  The one song the band did not write, Wire’s “Strange,” actually fits thematically quite well within the album.  Musically, REM had never sounded this raw, with Buck’s crunching guitar and Stipe singing “there’s something going on that’s not quite right.”

The band always included a light-hearted number on their previous albums (see “Superman” from Life’s Rich Pageant).  But here, the machine-gun lyrics of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” managed to be apocalyptic while still becoming an audience sing-along.

The album’s impact was incredible.  The single for “The One I Love” peaked at #9 in December of ’87, sharing the charts with Debbie Gibson, Whitney Houston and Whitesnake, while the LP became REM’s first to go platinum.  It showed to the world that “alternative” music could become mainstream, without sacrificing any integrity.

The bonus disc features a 20-song set recorded in Holland just before the album came out.  The band sounds tight and purposeful as they run through eight of the eleven tracks from Document.  What’s also interesting is to hear them still digging back into their catalog for obscurities like “Wolves, Lower” from their Chronic Town EP or “Moral Kiosk” from Murmur, songs they would soon retire from their setlist.  A stripped-down version of “So. Central Rain” is one of the many highlights.

The booklet features interviews with the band, who reveal how disturbed they were with the political climate circa 1987 – something that they used as motivation for recording Document.

Document rarely gets mentioned in “great albums” discussions – it made Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” – but barely. At #462 it trailed far behind both Murmur and Automatic For the People.  But, in terms of sheer influence, Document cannot be overstated.  It opened the doors for later success by 10,000 Maniacs, B-52’s and the Cure, and eventually paved the way for the alternative boom of the early 1990’s.  The best part is, it still sounds just as trailblazing as it did 25 years ago.  –Tony Peters