Album Review: R.E.M. – Document

R.E.M. Document albbum artwork

Yesterday, while Oregon burned, I took a gander south of my backyard at the haunting smoke enveloping the sky. An unprecedented sight.

I walked back in the house and my wife had popped on the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

A line of smoke from the Oregon fires
That’s smoke from fires about 20 miles south of Portland, yesterday.

It sure looked like it.

How apropos.

Now, I could take you down a faith-based rabbit hole that involves the Biblical account of the Olivet Discourse but I’ll save you from my proselytizing and stick with the music.

Why don’t you review this album?

My wife claims to provide me with ideas for Drew Review’s as I increasingly struggle to stay afloat with my prolific blogging peers and a sometimes waning desire to keep at it. All concerts were cancelled this year and with the current violent state of Portland – even if concerts resume next year – I’m not sure when I’ll ever see live action. I’ve seen photos of downtown Portland. The City of Roses resembles a war torn town in the Middle East.

All this to say, I took my wife’s advice and listened to R.E.M’s 1987 effort Document.

Smoke enveloping the skies of Oregon

You know R.E.M. retired nearly 10 years ago? I remember the statement they put out. I was dismayed a bit as I had never seen them live and missed out on the chance. I figured though, R.E.M would, like so many others, eventually come out of the woodwork and have some type of reunion tour. I’m thinking more and more that ain’t happening.

I recall my first and only R.E.M album purchase. Out of Time.  A happy record. But I never understood why I didn’t get into this band prior to this 1991 release or stay on-board very long thereafter. The ultimate college band, I like to say, R.E.M was unique, eclectic and offered a kind of fresh rock music during the new-wave heyday of the 80s.

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R.E.M. Document Album Review

Document was R.E.M.’s fifth album as the band – consisting of drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and singer  Michael Stipe – formed in 1980 already had several critically acclaimed albums.

Buuuut, after listening to Document for the first time I understood why R.E.M. did not fully resonate with me. Outside of a few songs, I found Document either worked as a respectable debut or a mediocre mid-career album that felt mostly mailed in.

Document opens with the very fine “The Finest Worksong” a solid guitar-rock tune with a memorable staccato melody that ebbs and flows nicely. “Welcome to the Occupation” sounds a bit familiar. I’ve heard this song before, but not this song. It’s OK, a short track, under three minutes, has a static melody from beginning to end.

I like “Exhuming McCarthy.” A pleasant song that falls right in line with the R.E.M. catalog. Great name, too. “Disturbance at the Heroin House” doesn’t move mountains but keeps it R.E.M. real and works as a deep album track. I’m getting a Gin Blossoms vibe now and “Strange” though forgotten on the first run through, shines a bit more on the second pass and quickly ends as the shortest track at just two and half minutes.

One of their best closes the first half of Document and the reason for this review. “It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is a classic all-around and a just a fun tune. How Stipe manages those rapid lyrics on stage must be something to witness. Indeed, it often felt like the end of the world during the Cold War of the 80s and even more so today. A thoroughly enjoyable song that resonates over the last 30 years and more.

No camera tricks, this is how the sky looks

“The One I Love” another popular R.E.M. song opens the second half of Document and now I know why “Welcome to the Occupation” sounds so familiar. Similar in nature, “The One I Love” clearly wins the popularity contest and a song that probably ranks in a Top 10 of the most dedicated  anthems, between couples, ever.

Feel free to stop listening or take the sad descent in obscurity as Document jumps off a cliff from here on out. “Fireplace” sounds like filler, is filler and should have been left on the cutting room floor. Silly, stupid saxophone on this one. Whole thing is weird.

“Lightnin’ Hopkins” starts well, with a solid drum groove but really not sure what Stipe has done with his voice.  A bit of Switchfoot echoes here (perhaps the other way around as R.E.M. was already well established so maybe Switchfoot sounds like R.E.M!), but the vocals really annoy, and ultimately the repetitive melody gets old. I’ll give Mills credit on the bass, a fun incantation if you must.

“King of Birds” bores a little but the dulcimer played by Buck offers a unique character to the song that actually might prove fruitful over time. Finally “Oddfellows Local 151” closes Document and prevents the second side from turning into a total letdown by contributing a solid methodical rock tune, enhanced by a serious overtone, amplified by Buck’s guitar and Berry’s structured drum tempo.

24 Hours Later the smoke remains leaving an orange hue in the sky

R.E.M. enjoyed a storied career, cut short by their own accord, and done their own way. They didn’t hang on too long but long enough. Document was one of 15 studio albums and gave R.E.M their first Top 10 single with “The One I Love” and first platinum album while helping start the band’s mainstream success which exploded a few years later upon the release of “Out Of Time.”

Grade: C+

R.E.M. Document Track List:

  1. Finest Worksong
  2. Welcome to the Occupation
  3. Exhuming McCarthy
  4. Disturbance at the Heroin 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 Birkds
  11. Oddfellows Local 151