R.E.M. – Document

Document (1987)


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


I’m back at school! And you know what that means! Drunken reviews! Like the end of the one of Lifes Rich Pageant I finished writing last night at like 2 in the morning! Woooo!

But enough about beer. When you put this album into your ears (and I literally mean shoving a CD into your ear. Try it now. See what happens), you will immediately notice that something is different about REM. And by “immediately” I mean 11 seconds in when Michael Stipe starts singing (unless, of course, you notice the arena-reverb drums first, which you probably will, since they’re pretty loud and everything). My first exposure to REM beyond hearing their hits on the radio was …And I Feel Fine, their incredible best of the IRS years comp. “Finest Worksong,” the first song on Document, is track 12 on that record and first song from Document to appear in its running order. And, well, I didn’t know a thing about REM and honestly thought they had replaced the singer. It sounds like a completely different person from the guy who sang “Radio Free Europe!” All full-throated and bellowy! And, uh… twangy!

It’s true – from this point forward, Stipe decides to be a rock frontman like any other, hogging the spotlight and singing with inescapable audibility, which continues to be a major turn-off for many old school REM fans. But I’ll say this right now, unequivocally and forever: “Swan Swan H”(ummingbird, asshole) notwithstanding, I fucking LOVE Michael Stipe’s post-1986 voice. No matter how often it may creak, crack and groan, and no matter how many times during a given song it may waver in and out of key due to the singer having learned how to sing on stage, on the fly, it always projects warmth to me. That hint of Southern drawl, that earnest earthiness, pulls me into his world effectively, even when I don’t care for the lyrics he’s singing. In fact, my affection for his singing might be a major reason why I find REM’s post-IRS work so much more bearable than most people, so there you go.

Overall, Document is a tale of two sides: the bright side (side 1) and the dark side (side 2). I give them these monikers not just because of their prevailing moods, but also because side 1 rules and side 2 is mostly shit. So let’s focus on the positives first: Peter Buck might just be right in his contention that the first six songs on here constitute REM’s finest single side of music. This is the band’s first collaboration with producer Scott Litt, a partnership that would last six albums, through the mid-90’s, and it results in a bright, sparkly, in-your-face mix that pretty much screams “play me on the radio right now!” And did the radio ever oblige; if you don’t mind taking a peek at the tracklist that I have so helpfully provided above, you’ll note that everyone’s favorite hyperspeed absurdist hit “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” is on here. More crucial Mills vocals on the chorus (“it’s time I had some time alone”), but you have to admire Stipe’s effort most of all. He makes it sound like he’s just rapping the verses like anyone could do it, but YOU try singing that song. It’s really fucking hard.

But the songs in between the hits are plenty good as well, and might not have been the same if REM had not decided to make the radio their boyfriend. For instance, if something like “Welcome To The Occupation” (side 1’s sole tonally downbeat moment) was on Fables Of The Reconstruction, you’d probably notice that it doesn’t have a chorus more readily, but here Stipe is harmonizing with himself and singing all loud and the instruments are nice and punchy so you hardly notice at all! And “Disturbance At The Heron House” is built on a pretty standard issue Buck riff, but they just keep building and building until it sounds big and open and like it’s ready for fist pumping (hahaha. How dirty does that sound). But my favorite is “Exhuming McCarthy,” a jaunty pop song that I would describe as rabidly infectious despite the stupid clip of Joseph Welch talking in the middle. For once, it’s even got an insightful message that resonates even stronger in today’s world of Teahadist Republican maniacs (seriously, read any conservative message board and I guarantee you can find someone claiming that McCarthy was some great misunderstood American hero without looking too hard). It might not be much to say that it’s their best blatantly political song, since much of its competition is the anti-Bush dreck they dropped on Around The Sun, but still. I cannot. Get. It. Out. Of. My. Head. And I’m glad it’s there.

But, sigh… then there’s side 2. It starts off with their first mega hit, “The One I Love,” which to be perfectly honest I wouldn’t all that broken up about never hearing again in my life. Not because it isn’t good, because I can’t deny how powerful the “Fire!” chorus is in its great simplicity. But it’s just one of those songs I’ve heard way too many times… before I knew anything about them I used to think I didn’t like REM because this was the only song of theirs I knew, since my local classic rock station, as many classic rock stations and their embarrassingly shitty and miniscule playlists are wont to do, played it over and over and over again until I got sick of it. Also because I hilariously used to get them confused with REO Speedwagon. I do think it’s pretty funny that so many people are stupid enough to use it for wedding songs and things like that when it’s clear that Stipe views the chick (or dude) in the song as “a prop.” But apparently taking 5 seconds to actually listen to the lyrics is too much trouble for some people.

In any case, “The One I Love” is still miles ahead of the remainder of the album’s back half… yikes. I can’t imagine the Reckoning-era band even touching this kind of stuff. What the FUCK exactly is the syndrum-driven “Lightnin’ Hopkins”?! And why is it called “Lightnin’ Hopkins”?? Is it because they realized they had created the least bluesy song of all time and had to come up with a title that leant the song some legitimacy so I wouldn’t puke? Yeah, well, FAIL. Similarly, “Fireplace” stumbles along haphazardly as if they made it up in about 15 seconds, as Stipe inexplicably returns to Murmur-level lyricism (“Sweep the floor into the fireplace?” Huh?).  And just wait until a saxophone starts honking around atonally for the entire second half of the song. You’ll LOVE that. “King Of Birds” at least has a cool dulcimer line, but since it’s played almost entirely on one chord it doesn’t quite achieve the “majestic” feel I think they were going for. Mercifully, they close with “Oddfellows Local 151,” which isn’t as good as anything on side 1 but displays some unsettling power with Buck’s creepy riff and Stipe’s squeals of “Firehoooouuuuuuuuuuusssse!” Still, it was pretty clear that there was trouble brewing in REM land. But there’s no error they could commit that could erase my good memories of side 1.

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