Neither the new R.E.M. album nor the stopgap product that bands often spit out between real records, Dead Letter Office is what its title suggests, a clearinghouse for outtakes, cover versions and B sides of singles. R.E.M. just wants to make them available. If the fans don’t like it, the next R.E.M. album will be out in September and this one will quickly fade. (CD purchasers get a bonus: the disc version of Dead Letter Office includes all of the songs from the band’s 1982 EP Chronic Town, which was previously unavailable in CD.)
Dead Letter Office sets its sights far lower than any of the band’s previous four LPs, but the first R.E.M. record wholly without pretension is something of an event. The self-deprecating, generous inner-sleeve notes, written by guitarist Peter Buck, prevent any stuffiness. For example, on his band’s deconstruction of Roger Miller’s fabled “King of the Road,” Buck muses that Miller “should be able to sue for what we did to this song.”
Dead Letter Office is R.E.M.’s loosest record. Singer Michael Stipe is as open as the best of Life’s Rich Pageant suggested he always could be, and on “Burning Hell” and “Ages of You,” Buck’s guitar work is his least studied and most unrestrained. Reverential covers of songs by the Velvet Underground, Aerosmith and Pylon nudge against the steady instrumental “White Tornado” and the wacky “Walters Theme,” helping to define the sources of this wideranging band. Dead Letter Office isn’t meant to be anything special. That’s why it is.