Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Release Date: September 1987
Producers: Scott Litt & R.E.M.
“The time to rise has been engaged,
You're better, best to rearrange
I'm talking here to me alone
I listen to the finest worksong,
Your finest hour”
- from “Finest Worksong”
At one point in the late 80’s, the boys from Athens could do no wrong. They were the definition of “College Rock”, releasing a string of incredible albums on I.R.S. Records, beginning with the American Indie Rock textbook Murmur, before jumping to The WB for super stardom. In the years since Warner Brothers swept them off their feet with promises of complete creative freedom, we’ve all watched as they exploded into one of the most interesting stadium bands in history, and then faded into endearing mediocrity. But Document is special, and no one really talks about it anymore. I guess that’s mostly because all the attention is now paid to Automatic For The People, and Document is only mentioned as an after thought, the album with “the Leonard Bernstein song” on it. But I remember the time before Automatic struck everyone’s fancy, when Document was the band’s undeniable classic, a masterwork that capped a run of amazing mystery and creativity. I still feel like it is that album, their best no matter what the charts for the following decade showed.
R.E.M. was always known for their opaqueness. Their music was a blur of hazy guitar, sharpened with the jangle of twelve strings, backed by thick rhythms that would bleed outside the lines – the beat of the Mills-Berry tandem was the biggest and most on time (Side note: this has been proven; my brother, a DJ, told me once that more than any other Rock band, R.E.M. was exact in keeping a beat); Michael Stipe was known for being unintelligible, that was his M.O. But with Document, R.E.M.’s fifth album in as many years, it was like someone remembered to focus. Everything is all of a sudden clearer, the haze is lifted, mainly due to the entry of producer Scott Litt, the man that would produce their records for the next decade, the ten years they would be at their most visible and popular. Their statement of arrival and intent is immediate; “Finest Worksong” launches with a startling crisp strum and a huge beat, announcing Michael’s words of self-encouragement, as if he’s heard the cries of fans and critics wondering what he’s been mumbling about for five years, “What we need has been confused”, and he and the band are going to give us what we want. But there is a winking air of ‘be careful what you wish for’, because R.E.M. knew how powerful they were, and they probably thought the world wasn’t ready yet. “Welcome To The Occupation” is musically the perfect R.E.M. song, exactly as you think of the band – somber melody, ringing guitar from Peter Buck, deceptively complex rhythm – but Stipe’s lyrics brought a new political fire. At the time, they stepped in shock, presenting for the first time the liberal protest that would lead them to being some of the biggest activists in entertainment this side of Bono. Michael evokes fire for the first of many times on the album (the original sleeve noted “File under Fire”), as he skewers the American foreign policy of the Reagan era with lines like “Listen to the Congress, where we propagate confusion”, and invokes the debacles of American involvement in Central and South America with moans of “Freedom reigns supreme; fire on the hemisphere below”.
The bouncy “Exhuming McCarthy”, which plots the course that “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People” would take, lets its upbeat mood play out instead of letting it obscure its critical message, speaking of being “loyal to the Bank of America” and remembering to “buy jingo, buy America”. “Disturbance At The Heron House” warns of “The followers of chaos out of control”, while “Fireplace” intones about the “crazy crazy world, crazy crazy times”. Of course, “It’s The End Of The World…” is Stipe’s desire to have his very own “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, a comment on the new age of the MTV attention span in the days of Republican paranoia, but in the rush of words he slips in two things twice; the name of comedian Lenny Bruce, who fought for free speech, and the phrase “listen to yourself churn”, which accurately continues the opening of “Finest Worksong”. Elsewhere, R.E.M. present the type of earlier confusion that was on their previous albums, but again, they do it in focus, so the musical attacks are more precise and the lyrics take on a Beat poet majesty. “Lightnin’ Hopkins” is surely the hardest they had ever rocked up to that point, and Stipe sounds positively pissed off on “Oddfellows Local 151”. And in one song, the delicate march of “King Of Birds”, the band planned the American folk journey that they would take to the days of Automatic For The People; it casts that album’s “Drive” almost as a response in melody and tone, the other bookend to their trip through experience.
Document came out on my eleventh birthday. I found this out just now, while researching this album, and I feel cold, as if a Georgia ghost has brushed across my shoulders. For me, seeing the video for the first single, “The One I Love” on MTV is probably the single most important musical moment of my life. It represented to me the promise of music, the vast possibilities. It wasn’t Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Springsteen, Duran Duran, or Bon Jovi. It was new, something I hadn’t ever thought of. Maybe my brain heard touchstones of my parents’ Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel records, I don’t know. I remember it like it was yesterday, the colors muted, the girl with her feet in the bowl, the lightning over that first snare hit, the guitar unlike any I had heard before. And that voice, the most cutting, pristine vocal tone I think I’ve ever encountered. Michael Stipe howling “FIRE”, Mike Mills floating shapeless behind him as always, Bill Berry’s drums cracking with force, it remains one of the few instances in music that can make me cry with every single listen. The Stipe of those days always sounded as if he was on the edge of an emotional breakdown, and the specific qualities of his voice always seem to pull me with him. I would suspect I was not alone. “The One I Love” put R.E.M. in front of everyone. It was their first top 10 single, making Document their first platinum album. Where they may have skirted the outer rim of public notice before, now they were going to be flirting with stardom, on the cover of the Rolling Stone as “America’s best Rock & Roll band”. If you think now about all the music that has come at us in the past twenty years, I think it seems OK to move on sometimes, otherwise we won’t have time for it all, but Document warrants making time for. At times it seemed as if R.E.M. was working on a higher plane, the leaders too far in the distance to catch, but they’ve slowed since Berry’s departure, and the world has caught up; Michael Stipe saw our future, and he left these songs for us, going out to those of us he left behind.
01. "Finest Worksong"
02. "Welcome To The Occupation"
03. "Exhuming McCarthy"
04. "Disturbance At The Heron House"
06. "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"
07. "The One I Love"
09. "Lightnin' Hopkins"
10. "King Of Birds"
11. "Oddfellows Local 151"
"Finest Worksong" [live, 1989]
from the Tour Film DVD
"It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" [live in Toronto, 2001]
"The One I Love" [live, somewhere, recently]
"King Of Birds" [live, 1989]
from the Tour Film DVD
- BONUS: "Finest Worksong" [video]
- BONUS: "Disturbance At The Heron House" [live in West Virginia, 04.91]
- BONUS: "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" [video]
- BONUS: "The One I Love" [video]
- BONUS: "The One I Love" [live, 1989]
from the Tour Film DVD
- BONUS: "The One I Love" [live, 1994]
- BONUS: "The One I Love" [live in Toronto, 2001]
- BONUS: Document promotional video