Friday, April 25, 2008

No. 470: Document

Band: R.E.M.
Album: Document
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: R.E.M.'s great strength was intelligent lyrics backed by souped-up Byrds-style indie rock. The political lyrics and Stipe's tenderness back up R.E.M.'s further implementation of difficult instruments into the mix.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Along with “Automatic For The People,” “Document” is the band's strongest album. This should be higher.
Best song: “Welcome to the Occupation” is a classic Stipe protest song. "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" is great, though overplayed.
Worst song: I don't love "Lightnin' Hopkins."
Is it awesome?: Yes.

One of the great things about ambigous lyrics is that we all can project whatever we want onto the lyrics. Michael Stipe's greatest strength in songwriting is his ability to create these ambiguities while still injecting the songs with passionate, emotional vocal tracks.

Sarcasm is similar. I've misinterpreted my fair share of lyrics (hello, Eric Clapton!) simply based on the sarcasm of the lyric. “The One I Love” and “Finest Worksong” have similarly been misconstrued. “The One I Love” is often seen as a love song, while Stipe's other lyric "A simple prop to occupy my time" isn't exactly complimentary.

“Document” sticks out because the songs finally got an easy-to-understand focus that was missing in earlier records. Ambiguity stopped being the playbook and Stipe's criticism of the socioeconomic situation of the mid 1980s became a theme of a few songs on the record. “Exhuming McCarthy,” “Finest Worksong” and “Welcome to the Occupation” all criticized the Reagan years.

Stipe, of course, isn't the only reason to love “Document.” Peter Buck's guitar riffing is at its riffy best on “Document.” The arpeggio of “Disturbance at the Heron House” contrasts well with the dark-toned Stones-style riff of “The One I Love.” Mike Mills' harmonies fill “Exhuming McCarthy.” Bill Berry's supercharged drums fill “It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and the wole band shows its skills with their cover of Wire's “Strange.”


“Document” was the band's first real commercial success and the record was the final one for independent IRS records. In the early 1990s, a lot of R.E.M. fans found that the band has lost its way by signing to Warner Bros. This, of course, is ludicrous, as the band produced – in my humble opinion, obviously – three of its greatest songs (“Man on the Moon,” “Drive” and the brilliantly perfect “Losing My Religion” on Warner Bros. and a contender for the band's strongest album in “Automatic for the People.” An independent label is always great, but an indie band can move to a major and not lose its creativity, there's nothing wrong with making a little money.

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