To remind the world — in a single sweep, apparently — of what happens when one of the globe’s most renowned and beloved bands embarks on a slow and decidedly downward spiral into obsolescence, Warner Brothers has taken the curious step of re-releasing its entire R.E.M. catalogue: nine albums spanning sixteen years. The story begins with Green. Released on Election Day 1988, it’s a beautifully rendered ode to nature, a warning of its abuses, and a call to arms. Thus far, the story ends with the unnecessary reissue of the months old Around the Sun, a mostly limp and insipid effort.
Each of the discs in the nine-album series (I’ll only discuss Green and 1994’s Monster here) comes with a companion DVD, featuring that album re-mastered in 5.1 stereo surround sound. The reissues have other features, too, but none of them are worth the $25 per disc Warner Brothers is asking. And what’s most annoying is that this set makes it unlikely that we’ll see a more encompassing package in the future. R.E.M. has a wealth of unheard songs. Why not include a bucket full of those. What about demo versions, B-sides, live tracks?
Upon Green’s release in 1988, the guys in R.E.M. — the essential foursome of Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe — had a lot of expectations to meet. They had succeeded tremendously on an indie level at IRS Records, but their new deal with Warner Brothers presented them with a potentially vast worldwide audience. At the time, skeptics didn’t appreciate the band’s overt political-ness, its sense of importance. Hearing Green now, however, it harkens back to a time when a rock band could hold the precarious balance of achieving immense popularity while raising political awareness.
The ironic silliness of “Stand” and the cheekily named “Pop Song ‘89” show a band that was smart enough to play dumb. Knowing their record was going to reach a much wider audience, they shrewdly disguised political messages as dumb pop songs. “World Leader Pretend” is a typical REM classic: all minor chord jangles and heart-wrenching middle eight. It’s as poetic and moving as “Turn You Inside Out” is brash and anthemic (and, subsequently, it doesn’t stand the test of time as well as the others).
If Green was the album of a band moving onto a new stage in its life, Monster was its midlife crisis. It’s the sound of a band trying to play catch-up. REM was integral in defining indie rock in its eighties infancy, but the Nirvana Nineties had changed everything: “modern rock” was the new new. Threatening to make a “rock ‘n’ roll” record for years, Monster was REM’s aptly named effort at coupling the era’s grunge with a learned retro take on seventies-style glam.
If it sounded muddied and confused then, it has only suffered more with age. Opener “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is the lone brilliant moment on the record; the rest of it blurs into an unmemorable mid-tempo dirge. Buck exploits his use of tremolo to the effect of nothing much, and “King of Comedy” and “Bang and Blame” remain shockingly bad. Only “Strange Currencies” and “Tongue” really offer any respite from the ugliness, but they’re buried too deeply within to seek them out. After peaking with 1992’s gorgeous and understated Automatic for the People, there was nowhere else to go but down.
Since Monster’s release, R.E.M. has been unintentionally dismantling the mountain it built. The band’s U.S. fan base has dwindled substantially, but R.E.M. has found unparalleled success in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Today, it’s impossible to listen to Automatic and not notice how it feels like a swansong record. As it’s two final songs make clear, R.E.M. had found the river; the band could have (night)swam into the sunset. Instead, it sank.