REM - Green (25th Anniversary Deluxe)
New adventures, indeed. After five albums for independent label IRS, REM were increasingly unable to resist the advances of the majors. With the official line being a desire to get their music out to the wider world, they signed to Warner Bros and set about their own particular brand of global domination. For a band who claimed to make every new album as a reaction against the last, it’s doubly difficult, as this worthy series of re-masters confirms, to not to continue to see their development as something sequential and of note. Hell, if you try hard enough, you can find significance in their writing in a particular key for the first time. But hooking up with the world’s biggest record label is hardly an everyday occurrence, undoubtedly significant. And Green, as unsettling an experience as it is impressive an undertaking, is far from an everyday work.
Of course, the band’s final IRS album, 1987’s Document took a blowtorch to Peter Buck’s mellow, ‘Byrds-ian’ guitar shapes and Michael Stipe’s skewed folklore; in its place a startling proto-grunge and an increasingly political voice emerged. Two years later and they were clearly not minded to cede so much as an inch to their new paymasters. Green is not quite as unyielding as its predecessor, not as reductive, lacking its steely cohesion. But its vision is compelling nevertheless. Not that Warners were that concerned what their new charges delivered. Green might well have been their most challenging work but the cash tills said otherwise. And of course, the label would be dancing on the tables a couple of years later when the artistic freedom they had afforded REM from the off, resulted in Out of Time, an unexpectedly approachable and commercial record. It was to be the album that, after the type of gradual ascent that today’s multi media-dominated industry couldn’t replicate, made them, arguably, the biggest band in the world.
But that was all to come. Green’s place in the canon? Difficult. Not least because, as with much of their work, it’s all too easy to see the 1989 REM as a band in a bewildering state of flux. The third in a consecutive 'noisy' trio (Buck favouring overdrive over chorus since 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant), it feels less like an aesthetic bridge and more of a stop sign. Remember: REM were perceived at the time as the quintessential guitar band, an act who might well go on to successfully fuse 60s folk rock and the alt stylings of the burgeoning US alternative scene with more success than any of their peers. Remember, also, that when word began to spread, pre-release, that 1992’s Automatic for the People was another ‘pop’ album, full of acoustic, string-led arrangements, the hardcore clamoured for a return to the rock approach. (Two records built on something other than the volume of Buck's amps now seems a perfectly laudable and justifiable side road to explore but there was relief in some quarters when it emerged that 1995’s Monster was to see an upping of the guitarist's involvement.)
Strange times. REM didn’t tour at all for either Out of Time or Automatic for the People and much of Green’s history and value is tied up in the accompanying year-long world tour, their biggest and most ambitious to date. With oddball lighting and scratchy, jittering back projections, and a set list that swapped fan favourites for fun and tossed in brave cover choices (at Leicester, we got Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’. A week later in Newcastle, they tore apart Television’s ‘See No Evil’) REM were becoming a live act of some repute.
So. Green. A strange one. Difficult to love? Perhaps, though many have dared to make a case for it as their best. A quarter century on, that’s pushing it. Partly because its two immediate successors managed to be as inclusive as they were curious. But, largely because its predecessors seem cut from a cloth that most emphatically defines, looking back, what we know to be REM, what we know as ‘classic’ REM, it pales in comparison. Debut Murmur and follow-up Reckoning are still to this day thrillingly hard to handle; with their oddball dismantling of the tenets of rock heritage, they document a young band picking away at themselves, drilling for their very core. Fables of the Reconstruction: did ever an album more powerfully document the circumstances of its manufacture, recorded in a rainy London, the band in an artistic funk, unsure of whether they even wanted to be a band any more? And then, of course, Lifes Rich Pageant and Document, the albums that saw Buck find no 11 on the dial and Stipe find his voice. Those two, you suspect, are actually REM’s most popular albums. Beautifully disrespectful of the template to date, they’re indefatigably cohesive and distinct. You could mix up the songs from both and a newcomer, listening ‘blind’, might well be able to compile each album correctly.
But, no mistake: Green is serious stuff. There’s something reassuringly contrary about its opening pairing. Pop Song 89 careers in on a tricksy riff, Stipe matching his hero Morrissey for observation as pointed as it is laconic: “Should we talk about the weather? / Should we talk about the government?” ‘Get Up’ is a Stooges stomp, its spartan chorus (“Dreams they complicate my life / Dreams they compliment my life”) no more than a blocky, descending fistful of bar chords that would choke the likes of ‘Pretty Persusaion’ and ‘Talk About the Passion’ just by looking at them. The Green tour began most nights with these two, a thumping assault. Track three was invariably a sweetener from the back catalogue, the message being: kids, you gotta earn the oldies. (The tour, their last, as a trim four piece is represented here on a second CD by a previously unavailable recording of a show recorded in Greensboro. It’s raw but compelling.)
Major chord aggression trumps, by and large, the elegant, rambling wistfulness of old. The likes of ‘Turn You Inside Out’ (a sinister re-working of ‘Finest Worksong’) and the squalling ‘I Remember California’ are all clout and feedback. When it’s a physical thrill, it’s largely a cerebral one, too. But at times, the thrust and pose makes way for something more thoughtful and studied and that’s where Green starts to unravel. Mike Mills is right to call it “haphazard”. It does much to tell you where REM might be going but it’s no clear indicator of what they are, where they are. ‘Orange Crush’, with Bill Berry’s parade ground snare and Buck’s scattergun arpeggios (a nod to the free-form picking of The Edge) has come to sound almost too big for REM, too conventional in its bombast. ‘Stand’ is bubblegum and fun, and would help define them in the newly emerging MTV age, but its sweet pop buzz is almost alarmingly at odds with the mood(s) overall. ‘World Leader Pretend’ is Green’s weakest moment, its earnest declamations exacerbated, not supported, by it being the only song to have its lyrics printed on the inner sleeve. REM were on a bigger stage by now and they had much to say on the state of a changing world as their public allegiance with both the Democratic party and environmental groups (a Greenpeace stall at every gig on the tour) but in retrospect, the likes of ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ and ‘Disturbance at the Heron House’ from Document are smarter, less hectoring examples of Stipe engaging with both US and world politics.
Ultimately, it would be Peter Buck who gave Green colour and focus, but not how fans might have expected. In a Melody Maker interview the previous year, the guitarist had cooed over his mandolin, a prized, new acquisition. He couldn’t play it, he admitted, but he sure as hell was going to learn. Lessons went well, obviously. The trio of acoustic songs – ‘You Are the Everything’, ‘The Wrong Child’, ‘Hairshirt’ – all confirm the absurd contradiction at the heart of this ‘guitar band’ – that they speak loudest when they’re at their quietest. ‘The Wrong Child’ is a brittle first person oratory of the pain of isolation, encouraging more debate over its meaning than just about anything in the REM back catalogue. Stipe, in almost unbearable close-up, sings: “Come play with me I whispered to my new found friend / Tell me what it's like to go outside, I've never been.” As always with REM, make of it what you will, but metaphorical rather than literal (Disabled? Gay?) is surely the way to go. ’Hairshirt, suffused with regret and candour (“Run a carbon-black test on my jaw / And you will find it's all been said before”) is devastating self-assessment. Or maybe not. A glance at the lyrics 25 years on proves more frustrating as illuminating. “It’s a beautiful life…my life…” Is that Stipe? All at once at one with the world? Surely not.
But it’s ‘You Are the Everything’ that has become Green’s anomalous centre-piece, Stipe painting a luminous vision of America in close-up, as universal and humanist a narrative as, say, Walt Whitman’s ‘A Clear Midnight’. In fact, so closely does Stipe’s collage-like arrangement of images (“The stars are the greatest thing you've ever seen / And they're there for you / For you alone”) match Whitman’s lucid free verse, you wish he’d have explored the poetic tradition more than he eventually did. The later shift into something more realist, less transcendental, now seems like a mistake and a challenge swerved. He may have come to hate that line (“The voices talking somewhere in the house / Late spring and you're drifting off to sleep / With your teeth in your mouth”), but he’s wrong to do so. No-one at that time working in something so restrictive and prescriptive as rock music could conjure mere words into imagery so other-worldly, provocative and sensory.
And just when you think you’re done… ‘(Untitled)’ is REM’s most truly lo-fi moment. With Buck on drums and drummer Bill Berry (supplier, don’t forget, of many of the band’s best known melodies) on guitar, it’s shabby, stripped-back garage pop. Breathlessly shifting tempo for the ‘chorus’ and bringing in Mike Mills’ fairground organ stabs, it’s REM at their least calculating, their most free. It’s a nothing of a song, the kind of thing a band might improvise in sound-check. It’s almost too insubstantial to warrant a title. In comparison to some of the more self-aware material here, it’s unfettered and childlike. But it's a joy. With fresh major label moolah in their pockets, REM close their first release as A Big Deal with a reminder of just who’s calling the shots. “We still get to fuck about, right?” they seem to say. A statement of intent, quiet but authoritative, shambling but graceful, and typical of the contradictory elements that define this fascinating but confused work, ‘(Untitled)’ is crazy and lovely.
It was exploration like this that saw REM make good on jumping in with the big boys. They debuted at number 1 around the world and cemented their reputation as the geeky weirdos that, actually, anyone could like. They were journeying from the underground but they scoffed at ‘cool’. They simply wanted to be who they were. Whatever that might be. The ‘Green’ tour played to their biggest ever crowds (in the UK, the NEC and Wembley Arena were added to the sold-out theatre leg) and Green (despite a cover that once again screamed “Don’t buy this!”) became their most successful record to date by some margin. That its schizoid nature might have represented something other than the healthiest artistic hunger went without question at the time, critical acclaim matching its chart success. No doubt, looking back, it would have surely been churlish to call them out on not being able to plump for a more unified approach. Maybe we were simply thankful that sticking their head in the lion’s jaw hadn’t caused them to morph into something unthinking, eager-to-please and mainstream. REM had entered the mainstream but they were far from mainstream. Which makes what they did next as unexpected as it was thrilling.