Document sits in a unique place in R.E.M.’s discography. It’s their final album with I.R.S. records, and it’s also the one that broke them through to the mainstream. While they’d been beloved in the “college rock” circles and had made a dent in the Mainstream Rock charts (“Fall on Me,” from 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, made it to #5 there), Document gave the band their first top-10 hit on the Hot 100, as well as their second-highest-charting hit to date there. It was also their first album to sell a million copies. Perhaps it was the cleaner sound of this album compared to their hazier, more mysterious earlier work that launched them to public fame. Maybe it was just time, after five great albums, for them to get noticed. In any case, Document is not only another terrific record, but also the record that fully launched R.E.M. as a major act to follow, serving as the turning point for the band from underground critical success to mainstream wealth and fame.
That top-10 hit is “The One I Love,” the second-most misinterpreted and inappropriately-played-at-weddings song of the 1980s. A fairly straightforward rocker, the lyrics are bleaker and more callous than the title would suggest– a sure sign that those wedding couples and DJs didn’t listen to those lyrics. The verse is repeated with only slight changes the last time, and it’s hard to consider this as an actual love song if you pay attention: “This one goes out to the one I love / This one goes out to the one I left behind / A simple prop to occupy my time / This one goes out to the one I love.” I wouldn’t put something so dismissive on my wedding playlist, but that’s just me.
Their second-biggest single from the album was the rapid-fire “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” charting on the Hot 100 at #69. (Hey, maybe that’s why they feel fine.) You surely know the song, the sense of madness it creates, and if you’re anything like me, you have a hard time hearing “Leonid Brezhnev” without immediately responding “Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs!” (For the record, I still think Billy Joel ripped it off for “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)
This whole album is great beyond its two most famous singles. It kicks off with “Finest Worksong”– the third single, which didn’t chart on the Hot 100 but hit #28 on the Mainstream Rock charts. It’s anthemic in a way R.E.M. often isn’t, but in a way that harkens back to their very first single, “Radio Free Europe.” Built around an incredibly simple, driving riff from Peter Buck’s guitar, it sounds like a call to action, but in that typically inscrutable R.E.M. way. (“You’d better best to rearrange”)
Document contains some of R.E.M.’s most political songwork to date– or, at least, some of the more specific and blunt lyrics in that regard. While Lifes Rich Pageant had the call to action of “These Days” and the environmentalism of “Fall On Me,” Document has a couple of songs specifically reacting to the Reagan era: “Welcome to the Occupation” and “Exhuming McCarthy.”
“Welcome to the Occupation” is specifically about the American interventions in South America under Reagan: “Here we stand and here we fight / All your fallen heroes / Held and dyed and skinned alive / Listen to the Congress fire” and “Sugar cane and coffee cup / Copper, steel and cattle” speak pretty directly to that, and to the barbaric practices of, say, the Contras in Nicaragua.
“Exhuming McCarthy”‘s title immediately suggest a revival of the patriotic fervor to crush dissent that Joe McCarthy rode on in his rise and fall. And its lines seem to lay clear that R.E.M. understands the true business of America is business: “Loyal to the Bank of America,” indeed. “Sharpening stones, walking on coals, to improve your business acumen” is a dig at both the self-help culture of the time and how its use is so often simply to get ahead in business, the only true American value. Really, Patrick Bateman would find a lot of himself in this song. “Look who bought the myth / By Jingo, buy America.”
There’s also the rare cover song. Not that R.E.M. rarely covered songs; the B-sides and oddities collection Dead Letter Office is full of covers of everyone from the Velvet Underground to Aerosmith to Roger Miller to Pylon. But those covers are on Dead Letter Office for a reason. Only once before had R.E.M. put a cover song on one of their proper studio albums– with Lifes Rich Pageant closer “Superman,” a cover of 60s Texas rock band The Clique. Document contains their second: “Strange” was originally a song by Wire; R.E.M. kicks up the pace a notch, Michael’s nervous and not Joey, and the whole thing is really a lot of fun.
R.E.M.’s sound on this album may be their most diverse yet. The stomping drumbeat that leads “Lightnin’ Hopkins”– named after the blues musician– comes immediately to mind. “King of Birds” introduces a zither; the song’s sound is one I find reminiscent of Reckoning‘s “Time After Time (Annelise).” The band also brought in Steve Berlin to play saxophone on “Fireplace,” otherwise a more straightforward song typical of what one might expect from R.E.M.’s transitory output– less hazy than previous efforts but still unmistakably them. (These new instruments would also preface their adoption of the mandolin on their upcoming albums, probably most notably on Out of Time‘s “Losing My Religion,” their biggest hit single ever.)
I should make mention that there’s not a bad song on the album or one I would skip. (Even though I didn’t really talk about “Disturbance at the Heron House” or “Oddfellows Local 151,” they’re both fine tracks, with the latter’s down-tempo and sparseness making it a good closer.) The sound is more diverse than previous albums, but that’s not strictly why this is good; it’s because R.E.M. has kept up the quality of their previous output while expanding their style in more and different directions than ever before. Document is not my favorite R.E.M. album (I already wrote about that one), but it’s one of their best; it would be a close fourth in my personal rankings behind New Adventures and their two most recent previous efforts to this one. Document marks the crucial point where the band took a major step from being indie darlings with pretty good sales numbers for an off-major label act, to one of the biggest bands in the world for most of the next decade.
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