It might never be like this again. For all the melancholy in Michael Stipe’s words when he says in this compilation’s liner notes that R.E.M. “grew up in public,” the limelight the band members were in during their early years was a flickering candle compared to the megawatt spotlight of today’s blogosphere. Their avenue to more recognition, college radio, was a miniscule hype machine compared to the Internet buzz generators. Sure, Murmur was Rolling Stone’s album of the year in 1983, but at that point the magazine was a monolith of rock journalism. Now we all anxiously await the next Arcade Fire album with trepidation.
It might never be this good again. If Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s sophomore offering is one-tenth as stellar as Reckoning, well then . In fact, R.E.M could’ve done away with the entire idea of compiling a best-of and simply re-released Reckoning. “Pretty Persuasion,” “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” “7 Chinese Bros.,” “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” and “Time After Time” all show up across the span of this two-disc set, but absentees “Harborcoat” and “Little America” are just as worthy of canonization.
The first disc consists solely of album tracks, some of which rank amongst the best plangent, Southern gothic and/or socially conscious rock songs ever written: “Driver 8,” “Finest Worksong,” “Cuyahoga,” “Fall on Me.” The second disc contains some more completist-friendly material. There’s a glacially slowed-down demo of “Gardening at Night.” A “Hib-tone” version (whatever that means) of “Radio Free Europe” accentuates the song’s spikiness, pushing it into proto-punk territory, Stipe snarling like he’s doing a Johnny Rotten impression. There are live cullings of “Swan Swan H,” “Life and How to Live It,” “We Walk,” and “1,000,000,” among others. And there are two early versions of songs R.E.M. would revisit later, “Bad Day” and “All the Right Friends,” as well as a completely unheard before offering, “Theme From Two Steps Onward.”
Nostalgia always wears rose-colored glasses, of course. And on many days, there isn’t music I love more than early R.E.M. It’s a testament to the quality of this material that I keep butting up against a loss for words to describe it. How can the written word help us hear musical perfection? Dancing about architecture, indeed.