Second R.E.M. album review on here in a few days. The reason for this is that I've recently joined a listening group on Facebook called Temporary Fandoms where a group of fairly like-minded music enthusiasts listen to artists back catalogue album by album and then discuss their reactions to what they've heard together. Simple concept but a very good one for those with great enthusiasms in this direction.
We are currently working our way through R.E.M.'s recordings. Already through the first week, which includes most of my own personal favourites and now onto the bands middle career, where they conquered the world in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Up to the point where two of them almost died and drummer Bill Berry left, effectively in retrospect sounding their death knell as a majorly significant force, although they kept cash tills ringing both as recording and touring artists until their ultimate demise about ten years back.
I'm going to find the second week of records extremely interesting as I haven't really listened to any of them all the way through for almost twenty years with the exception of Automatic For The People which is still a highly regular visitor to my turntable and I imagine always will be.
So why don't I listen to Green, Out Of Time, Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi anymore? They're all decent to good records, although individual songs might turn me off. R.E.M. after all didn't put out a bad album for at least the first twenty years of their career, though you could more easily argue that perhaps they did after this point. The ultimate answer to why I don't listen to them certainly says more about me than them, but thanks to Temporary Fandoms, I'm catching up now.
So to Green. When I considered listening to it again a few days ago and looked at the song titles there was very little that encouraged enormous personal relish at the prospect. I actually thought, OK I look forward to hearing Get Up and Orange Crush, and Pop Song '89 is fine R.E.M. mid-period by numbers, but I can do without the rest. But I've listen to the album a number of times over this weekend, and somewhat changed my opinion. It's a much better album than I remembered.
When it comes down to it, what I think subconsciously put me off listening to this album for so many years although I completely love the band is that this record and Out Of Time the one that followed it marks the high level of mid career navel gazing on the part of lead singer Michael Stipe, before he pulled himself together for Automatic and started singing something consistently worthwhile again.
Evidence for the prosecution Re:Michael Stipe navel gazing on this record. You Are The Everything, World Leader Pretend, Wrong Child, I Can Turn You Inside Out, Hairshirt. If I focus on the production and overall sound and texture of the songs I'm fine, if I focus on the lyrical concerns I think, 'Pull yourself Michael. This is not all about you. You must have been a very irritating child.'
Eventually on my repeat listens I managed to put these slightly unkind thoughts to the back of my mind and focus again on the texture of the record. I realised it was quite gorgeous. If you can forgive the band the whacky, and deeply irritating Stand, one of their first really big hits, (and frankly I still find it difficult), there's much here to marvel at and respect.
Get Up and Orange Crush remain my favourites. Get Up has always reminded me of The Beatles phenomenal pop knack, R.E.M. had plenty of that over the years too. Orange Crush, about the American government's Vietnam War Agent Orange war atrocities, may well be up amongst the most exhilarating Rock songs about something utterly hideous ever written. It's a breeze.
But the record has plenty of other pleasures to experience. You Are The Everything and World Leader Pretend are lush and verdant. Turn You Inside Out is the nearest the band ever came to sounding like Led Zeppelin to my ears and though it's an odd mix, it works for the course of the song. I Remember California is prime time R.E.M. atmospherics.
And best of all, and the treat I take away from this particular listening immersion is last track titled Untitled. No wonder I never really bothered to listen to it before. If a band can't be bothered to give their song a name, why should an audience be bothered to listen to it? But I have now and can report that it's quite wonderful in every respect.
So I haven't listened to this album for over twenty years but I'll listen to it plenty from now on. I recognise it now as one of their best and can even put up with Michael scrutinising his navel at great length over the course of the record. There are still some horrible moments. 'Let my machine talk to me' on World Leader Pretend is a quite ghastly lyric. Someone should really have talked him out of it. Elsewhere he and the band get many things just right. On balance Michael, I forgive you. Sure that will please him.