The Best Of R.E.M.: In Time 1988-2003
Warner Brothers, 2003
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/13/2011
What is it about Michael Stipe’s voice, anyway? There’s something almost hypnotic about it, which must at least partially have to do with the hypnotic quality of his lyrics, which generally feature strings of striking images sung passionately, as opposed to anything resembling linear thought. Call it sound painting or sung poetry or whatever you like; the point is that R.E.M. delivers a mood more than they tell a story, again and again; it’s simply what they do.
I was reminded of the unique qualities of Stipe’s voice and lyrics after picking up this album almost at random after it had been sitting on my shelf for eight years. R.E.M.’s mid-decade “best of” covering the first 15 years of their association with Warner Brothers is an interesting document of an interesting period in the band’s life, covering both their most commercially successful years (an interesting era in and of itself for a band that’s never really cared about commercial success) and charting them on through the denouement period after drummer Bill Berry’s 1997 retirement, in which they fell to earth commercially and in some sense returned to their roots. Radio lost track of them, their audience shrank once again to a faithful core, and their sound changed (again), as lead vocalist Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist/keyboardist/harmony vocalist Mike Mills experimented with electronic drums and synthesizers.
The Best of R.E.M.: In Time 1988-2003 bridges these disparate eras in a way only this unique band could conceive. It’s one of those collections that attempts to create unity in diversity by scrambling songs completely out of chronological order and leaving out a raft of singles that charted in favor of the tunes the band liked best. The only real concession to conformity is having “Man on the Moon,” perhaps the group’s best-known song, lead off the disc.
The most fascinating thing about revisiting the older and more familiar songs here is how time has altered my perceptions of them. Yes, the thumping insouciance of “Stand,” the melodic earnestness of “Losing My Religion,” the droning propulsiveness of “Orange Crush” and the plaintive directness of “Everybody Hurts” still shine through, but in many case the older songs that once felt daring now feel familiar and safe. It’s the newer stuff that feels out there, edgy.
One of the reasons I shied away from R.E.M.’s post-Berry musical output is the reality that a lot of times a focus on electronics dulls or dehumanizes a band’s music, and R.E.M.’s music, for all the willful obscurity of Stipe’s lyrics, has always had a vibrant emotional core. What In Time taught me is that the guys in R.E.M. are clever enough to incorporate new tones into their sonic palette without losing the heart of their music. For once while listening to a best of collection, I was less interested in the songs I had known and enjoyed for years than in the songs I hadn’t.
“Bad Day” and “Animal,” the two most recently recorded songs on this disc, are both standouts. “Bad Day” was begun in 1986 but remained unfinished until 17 years later; it unsurprisingly has an old-school R.E.M. feel with furiously-paced (and occasionally furious) lyrics that are somewhat coherent in the beginning but dissolve into surrealistic repetition. “Animal” delivers a pleasantly psychedelic swirl of guitar and electronics before resolving into a punchy rock chorus with slightly spooky background vocals; a reference to the fourth dimension seems perfect in context.
“The Great Beyond,” a tune they composed for the Man In The Moon soundtrack, is an excellent complement to its counterpart, an airy, expansive tune about pushing the envelope until it’s in tatters. “All The Way To Reno” is a favorite from the group’s electro years, with a dreamy synth wash and bells doing a gentle, steady build to the point where, as the song crescendos in the last minute, it’s not loud and it’s not heavy, but it’s full and strong and the melody picks you up on its shoulders. The more familiar, jangly surrealism of “Imitation Of Life,” from 2001’s Reveal, shows that the band never lost their desire to rock, they just needed to explore for awhile before circling back around.
Besides putting me in an R.E.M. frame of mind, one of the best things about this package is guitarist Peter Buck’s pithy liner notes. He offers entertaining anecdotes about the creation of many these songs, notably the multilayered anthem “Man On The Moon” and the simpler yet gorgeous closer “Nightswimming.” Still, my favorite—for the way it concisely sums up the essence of R.E.M.—might be his comment on “Orange Crush”: “I must have played this song onstage over three hundred times and I still don’t know what the fuck it’s about.” Exactly; it’s a driving, dynamic song whose lyrics are a string of nonsense. But it sounds great.
Of course, if you’re talking gibberish you really have to mention “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” a neck-snapping deluge of non sequiturs that Stipe sings with such earnest passion that you can’t help getting swept up. Less oblique is “At My Most Beautiful,” the group’s Beach Boys homage and a fine example of orchestral pop. Last but not least, their contribution to the soundtrack to the film Vanilla Sky, “All The Right Friends,” is another oldie rescued from obscurity that arrives fresh from 1979 and full of drive.
Perhaps the strangest part of reviewing this album for me was the synchronicity involved. I picked it up years ago—probably as a gift, I don’t remember—and simply filed it away, never seriously considering it for review until I grabbed it while preparing for a long car ride recently. I listened to it all the way through—my first lengthy session of R.E.M. in several years—and enjoyed it a lot, only afterwards remembering that Patti Smith is featured on the eerie “E-Bow The Letter,” and is in fact one of Michael Stipe’s musical idols. Patti Smith, the poet-rocker whose wonderful memoir Just Kids I was in the middle of reading at the time after another friend (or perhaps the same one?) gave it to me.
The random poetry of the universe at work? Perhaps. Or perhaps we should just call it the Stipe Effect…