Document by R.E.M. (I.R.S. Records, 1987. 40 minutes)
Formed in 1980 in Athens, Georgia, R.E.M. is one of the first alternative rock bands. The band has released 15 full-length studio albums and is well known for campaigning for political and humanitarian causes. R.E.M. disbanded in 2011.
Chasing the Tree
Recently, the Seattle Mariners traded Mike Carp. This occurrence has nothing to do with R.E.M. other than it serves a point I am about to make. This AAAA First Baseman/Left Fielder is the latest player in a long line of acquisitions that can be traced back to the Mark Langston trade in 1989. More specifically, Langston became Randy Johnson became Freddy Garcia became Jeremy Reed became Mike Carp.
Something about tracing this tree of player movement interests me. Similarly, climbing up the tree of musical influence fascinates me. The bands I enjoy today listened to music as they honed their craft. Inevitably these bands are influenced by past bands. The past bands were influenced by even older bands, and at some point you end at an innovator who reinvented music in some way, shape, or form.
Which means, I want to dive deeper into R.E.M.’s Document. This band from Athens, Georgia has influenced a wide variety of mainstream and underground indie bands. Their sound and their politics continue to sprout new acts and I want to know why.
For me, R.E.M. means “Losing My Religion” and that one song in Jim Carey’s film about Andy Kaufman, Man on the Moon. Of course, R.E.M.’s career runs much deeper than two songs and Document seems like a good place to start.
Having spun Document and let it marinate, there are two distinct signatures for R.E.M. First, the band, at its core, is a protest band. Second, R.E.M. possesses strong open chord progressions augmented with chorus pedals. Wikipedia likes to define the sound as “Jangle Pop.”
Thematically, Document feels apocalyptic. It was written and released late in the Reagan era and it holds to paranoia that American exceptionalism might end the world.
The two songs best defining these aspects are “Exhuming McCarthy” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
With “Exhuming McCarthy,” singer Michael Stipe explores the idea of “McCarthyism,” a political tactic of attacking opponents and making widespread, unsubstantiated claims, made famous by the late U.S. Senators Joseph McCarthy.
“Vested interest united ties landed gentry rationalize / Look who bought the myth by jingo buy America”
In this song, Stipe constantly references ties between business interest and political gain. The energetic song wraps the thematic idea of American exceptionalism in a neat protest bow.
Front Row Seat at the Apocalypse
On the more apocalyptic side, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” ponders the results of aggressive U.S. foreign policy and the unrelenting view of America as God’s ordained superpower. It’s safe to say Stipe is a bit critical of 1980s America:
“Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn / World serves its own needs / Don’t miss-serve your own needs / Speed it up a notch, speed, grunt, no, strength / The ladder starts to clatter / With a fear of height, down, height / Wire in a fire, represent the seven games / And a government for hire and a combat site / Left her, wasn’t coming in a hurry / With the Furies breathing down your neck”
The unrelenting lyrical twists over a break beat tempo resolve in a chorus where Stipe laments the end of the world. Interestingly, the background lyrics hopefully sing,
“It’s time I had some time alone”
There’s a sense in which the way America works has completely exhausted this band.
The Sounds of Protest
Sonically, R.E.M. utilizes reverb- and chorus-driven guitars to give the album space. While the music isn’t busy, it is erumpent and loud. Perhaps best exemplified in “The One I Love,” R.E.M. turns the amps to 11 and lets the strummed guitars decay as the overdrive jangles above Stipe’s seemingly sweet but subversive lyrics.
Interestingly, for me, this sound—which is a defining characteristic of R.E.M.—continues to sprout in bands we hear today—The Decemberists come to mind—as well as pay homage to the bands of the past—more specifically, the twelve-string tunes from The Byrds.
On the whole, Document is a pretty good album. It has lasted the test of time as a link in the progression of rock music, much like the Seattle Mariners continue to reap the benefits of a trade more than 20 years ago. If you enjoy protest lyrics, loud guitars, and want to dive into the history of alternative rock, check out Document.
Verdict: 4 out of 5