REM - In Time: The Best of REM 1988 - 2003
Following on from either 1988's Eponymous or The Best of REM that followed a decade later (take your pick of either, the track listing is fundamentally the same) In Time: The Best of REM 1988-2003 offers the best of the band's Warner Brothers years as much as both of those earlier albums do for the years spent at Miles Copeland's IRS label.
There's little doubt that Warner Brothers signed REM before they hit either their commercial or critical peak. Coming off the back of Document, the band's last album for IRS and the one that had provided the band with their breakthrough song, One I Love, Warner Brothers took immediate receipt of Green - a big and still impressive record that, like the best of Led Zeppelin, wasn't afraid to mix slower, more folky moments in amongst the rock. Following the Green tour - the band's most successful to date - REM recorded the more pastoral Out Of Time, the success of which led the band to conclude that their audience could take another slower, quieter record before delivering the rock album they had promised. The result was Automatic For The People and despite its themes of mortality and loss, there were a sufficient number of uplifting moments - notably Everybody Hurts - that offset the more meditative songs like Drive. Realising that neither album that followed their last tour was really one to haul around the stadiums of the world, REM recorded Monster but despite good first impressions, critics began to turn against this album that, instead of the sparkle of earlier songs like These Days and Orange Crush, offered only a sludgy production in which the highlight was a cameo by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore.
During the 1995 world tour, REM recorded New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which now sounds a little too long and sprawling but, what wasn't said at the time, works best by dipping into what would have been its four sides on vinyl. Yet the biggest news that year was Bill Berry's aneurysm after which he decided to leave the band. Instead of breaking up, REM regrouped as a three-piece, recorded the more experimental Up before getting back to what they admitted they do best - exquisitely arranged country-tinged rock - for 2001's Reveal. Clearly, after sixteen years of being signed to Warner Brothers, 2003 is as good a time as any to look back on not only their previous seven albums but parts two and three of their long-running career...
...or it could be seen as the moment where, for the first time in REM's career, they had produced something that was less than interesting, Warner Brothers have clearly decided that a pre-Christmas best-of may the thing that is needed to revitalise the band's commercial and creative coffers. REM's recent problem is that for too long, they have looked like a band in search of an idea for, having completed a run of three albums they were deservedly proud of, being Green, Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, Monster was the first time in their career that REM looked vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, the band have only taken one track from that album for this best-of (What's the Frequency Kenneth?, although Crush With Eyeliner would have been a better choice) compared to four from Automatic For The People and a disappointing two from Green, the album this reviewer considers to be their best.
The problem with REM as they stand today is that they seem to have lost the feeling of what it means to be REM and are, instead, consumed with what they think it might mean. Therefore, where Life's Rich Pageant, Document and Green drew a long gaze across the US and effortlessly described what was to be found there in song, Monster and Up both take much a much longer time to say a great deal less. Even their most recent album, which had most critics typing 'comeback' with a note of relief, sounds forced and Imitation Of Life, one of the tracks here from that album, uncomfortably jostles against Orange Crush, the track that precedes it. Strangest of all, given the number of superb songs on Out Of Time, REM have only included the predictable and overrated Losing My Religion when Low, Half A World Away and Country Feedback would have been much better selections.
Then again, a number of songs do work really well on this album. E-Bow The Letter, in particular, is a bruised and underrated ballad and it's great to see it included here. Similarly, the gorgeous Nightswimming is always welcome and it's nice to see that despite it being overshadowed by Everybody Hurts, Man on the Moon and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, there's still space for it here.
As a best-of, In Time doesn't really hold together as these seventeen songs do not represent the best of REM during the years between 1988 and 2003. Similarly, In Time doesn't work as a greatest-hits collection, as a number of songs that reached the charts during these years have not been included. Finally, as a sampler of REM's work for Warner Brothers, In Time feels slight and mean-spirited - in an age when The Spice Girls can release a single-disc best-of following three albums, it would have been preferable to see REM be given two discs to summarise their last sixteen years.
This is not to say that there aren't great songs here but the whole package, like a few of the more recent REM albums, feels incomplete. In Time is still deserving of a good score but anyone who's interested enough in REM to consider picking up this album should really just consider buying not only the seven albums they recorded for Warner Brothers but also the five for IRS. Bands like REM are rare enough but to only sample them through this strange choice of seventeen songs simply doesn't do them full justice.