It is no accident that R.E.M.’s finest album to date opens with the anthemic reveille “Finest Worksong,” a muscular funky-metal wake-up call that is an unmistakable declaration of intent. “The time to rise/Has been engaged,” bleats singer Michael Stipe over the industrial scrape of Peter Buck’s guitar and the martial locomotion of bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry. “We’re better/Best to rearrange.” Document, the fifth in a series of singular state-of-our-union addresses by America’s most successful fringe band, positively ripples with the confidence, courage and good, swift kick of a rock & roll band at the top of its form.
For R.E.M.’s latest step forward is actually the result of a key step backward. Stipe and company are hardly strangers to change. Without exception, their records combine a spirit of willful perversity with a healthy restlessness and a steadfast refusal to acknowledge either commercial or critical expectations. But in the beginning — before the enigmatic electric folk of Murmur, the exploratory smorgasbord of Fables of the Reconstruction and the consummate outlaw pop of Life’s Rich Pageant — there was the Beat, and R.E.M. knew how to use it. It was the band’s incomparable stage rage, Buck’s Who-like slice-and-dice guitar, Stipe’s steely vibrato and Mills and Berry’s rhythmic tug that wowed Deep South barflies and East Coast in crowds in the early days.
Document captures those thrills and chills in tight, vivid focus. Coproduced by the band and engineer Scott Litt with a striking technical clarity and a diligent respect for bar-band basics, it is the closest to the band’s live sound that R.E.M. has come on record since its ’82 EP Chronic Town and its 1981 indie single debut, “Radio Free Europe.” Despite a few splashes of extra texture (the occasional faint keyboard, Steve Berlin’s loco-Trane sax in “Fireplace”), the band assumes a tough instrumental stance, a reduction of possibilities into a spiked-fist thrust that in fact heightens the strange compound of telegraphic imagery and haunting vulnerability in Stipe’s lyric transmissions. Indeed, his vocals, which are up front in the mix, are as crisp and distinct as they’ve ever been, full of emotional portent and physical insistence.
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In “The One I Love,” a straightforward expression of regret (“This one goes out to the one I left behind”) becomes a cry of guilt and pain; Stipe wails, “Fire!” with 3-D torment as Buck’s storm-cloud guitars open up with bassy thunder and stabs of lightning twang. “Fireplace” is more abstract in tone; for lyrics, Stipe used extracts from a speech by Mother Ann Lee, the leader of the American Shaker sect in the eighteenth century. But it too crackles with uncommon tension, the product of a fractured waltz rhythm, a weird circular chord structure and the clarion Stipe-Lee call to celebrate life amid hellish chaos — “Crazy crazy world/Crazy crazy times/Hang up your chairs/To better sweep/Clear the floor to dance/Shake the rug into the fireplace.”
It is a theme that pervades and animates Document. “Disturbance at the Heron House,” an otherwise sunny folk-pop number, has bitter lyrics that describe liberty gone amuck, free expression co-opted by the mob that shouts the loudest (“the followers of chaos/Out of control”). Two songs later, in the jangly, churning “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine),” a joyous hymn to self-as-sertion and self-preservation, Stipe turns all of that rhetoric into a brilliant Gatling-gun litany of cheap clichés and TV newspeak, delivered in a frenzied Dylanesque monotone. It is his own “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It is also probably the only rock song ever written that mentions Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and the late rock critic Lester Bangs all in the same line.
Document has its more placid, though no less disquieting, moments. “Welcome to the Occupation” is a blistering indictment of U.S. interference in Central America. In the eerie “King of Birds,” Stipe’s subtle debunking of his own mystique (“I am the king of all I see/My kingdom for a voice”) is aptly framed by bittersweet sleigh bells and a John Fahey-like raga guitar. But where previous records by R.E.M. have essentially been selective refractions of the band’s whole, concentrating on a particular spirit or mood, Document balls them all up into a clenched-fist manifesto of rebel bravado. Even the album’s lone cover, “Strange,” by the English post-punk band Wire, is worked into the script; the original’s robot stomp is pumped up into an AC/DC-does-“Sister Ray” boogie as Stipe dryly intones, “There’s something strange going on tonight … something going down that wasn’t here before.”
Those words date back to 1977, long before the members of R.E.M. played their first note together. But they suit the album perfectly. A vibrant summary of past tangents and current strengths, Document is the sound of R.E.M. on the move, the roar of a band that prides itself on the measure of achievement and the element of surprise. The end of rock & roll as R.E.M. knows it is a long way off.