I.R.S., 1987

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


Document was R.E.M.’s "I’m ready for my close-up" album.  With Bill Berry’s introductory tap of his drum kit and Peter Buck’s squalling guitar, "Finest Worksong" kicked R.E.M. from college rock darlings to Top Ten contenders.

It did help that R.E.M. had I.R.S. Records and Scott Litt as a producer. With I.R.S., R.E.M. had the freedom to ease themselves into making an album like Document by gradually finding their sound with their four previous studio albums (imagine The Strokes’ record label giving them five albums to find their sound). As a producer, Litt gave R.E.M. a pop sensibility while maintaining their instantly identifiable, but hard-to-define sound.

R.E.M.’s more pop-centered approach here may have been a result from a bit of friendly competition with U2. Both bands dominated college rock and both bands met with stardom in 1987. Throw in Appetite for Destruction, Prince’s Sign O’ The Times and Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love and 1987 turned into the greatest year for mainstream releases from the ‘80s.

To get the obvious out of the way, Document is a doozy of a good album. The first half of the album is as a good of a first-half of an album released in the decade. If "Finest Worksong" had "stadium anthem" written all over it, "Welcome to the Occupation" harkened back to their my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction days.

But just when you are accustomed to the old R.E.M., a typewriter sound leads you into "Exhuming McCarthy," a tongue-in-cheek stab at Reagan America. "You’re sharpening stones, walking on coals / To improve your business acumen," Micahel Stipe sings in a melody that’s as catchy as The Clash’s best radio-ready tunes.

Right before one of their most well-known songs, ending side one of Document on an amazing high note, R.E.M. throws in a blazing cover of "Strange." Nearly a decade before Elastica made it cool to name-drop Wire, R.E.M. fit in a cover of the art-punk song "Strange" off of their seminal Pink Flag album, one of the three albums that had a profound influence on Stipe's career.

"It’s The End of The World As We Know It" is what arguably brought R.E.M. to mainstream ears. In a nod to Bob Dylan’s "Subterranean Homesick Blues," the tune is a flurry of stream-of-consciousness rant that has been used in everything from Chris Farley vehicles ("Tommy Boy") to godawful Hollywood blockbusters ("Independence Day"). While many people who sang the song may not have known a tenth of what Stipe was singing about (everyone seems to get "Leonard Bernstein," however), the song’s chorus made the song an instant classic in alternative music.

The second half of the album doesn’t retain the heights of the first half of the album. "The One I Love" is a good song, but its biggest impact came from the fact that so many people were duped by the title of the song and Stipe’s apparently sincere delivery of "This one goes out to the one I love;" people didn’t realize it was one of the most cold-hearted slams against a lover in mainstream pop at that time.

"Lightning Hopkins" and "King of Birds," were good songs on their own, but in contrast to the other tunes on Document, it seemed like those songs were better suited for b-sides. Both songs arguably could have easily landed on Green, but on Document, both songs seem to slightly tarnish the album’s power. "Oddfellows Local 151" is also a slightly weaker track, but it’s a fitting closer to the album.

Any complaining that Stipe vented about the troubles of fame ring a bit false after hearing Document. The album sounds like a band that truly wanted to be in the same realm as U2. R.E.M. would pull back a bit on Green, but it wouldn’t matter: Document made R.E.M. superstars and gave millions of people exposure of a genre that was initially thought to be only for English lit majors.

Rating: A-

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© 2006 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of I.R.S., and is used for informational purposes only.