In the midst of a presidential campaign season, R.E.M.’s politically motivated ‘Document’, turns a quarter century old. From the fiery pulpit of Michael Stipe and guitar work of Peter Buck, R.E.M. masterfully craft these 11 songs into an iconic work. I always felt that Stipe laments the dangers of ‘isms’ but while the band has always sought a more progressive point of view and while it truthfully ridicules some of the Reagan cheerleading of the 80’s, it also clearly points fingers at some dangers of institutions in general.
‘Finest Worksong’ opens the album as an almost “Pseudo Workers Party Theme song”, straight from the “Barack Obama Socialist” handbook some might say. There is a certain hokeyness to the lyrics, as if I need to sit there and be inspired to psych myself up for the workday. It drives home an opening statement and an idea. The album follows some of the themes of prior albums in a different manner. ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ opens thoughts up to the idea of “Let’s begin again”, “Lets start a new country up”. For Document, it’s let’s organize with a different purpose than the America that we currently live in. Let’s not just talk about beginning again but actually starting over. The first side of the album becomes a bit of a propaganda piece, a PSA, if you may.
Realize that R.E.M. becomes more than just singing these mantras without actually believing in the concepts behind them. As they tour, their shows always have a local politically minded groups with worthy causes having tables set up near the entrance ways for fans to gain knowledge. Realize that this is before the internet where the power of information was much more expensive than it is now.
‘Welcome to the Occupation’ and ‘Exhuming McCarthy’, both make their points known with one suggesting the hypocrisy of how America values it’s own freedoms but not those of other countries, in this case a country in Central America and another, a reference in the title to Senator Joseph McCarthy who went on his dirge regarding communist spies in the United States. They kick start this album in such a manner in that we are not speaking about ‘Hope and Change’ but challenging the very fabric of America and the party on the right. As some have claimed that Ronald Reagan has grown to become an icon among the right wing, there needs to be a realization that the progressive left did not have the power during this time challenging the listener to understand the ideas of what it means to be an American.
‘Disturbance at the Heron House,’ grapples at the heart of the album. The song contains all the necessary ingredients for a classic R.E.M. track. There are lyrics like the following: “The followers of chaos out of control” and the “Gathering of Grunts and Greens” which will leave even the most studied R.E.M. fan questioning what is being derived by the song unless they read the “Stipe Notes” and see that the song is Stipe’s version of Orwell’s classic novel “Animal Farm”.
For me, the song’s strength was not realized for me initially, on the album itself but live and in this case the acoustic version.
R.E.M.’s songs invoke a level of flexibility that show both their delicate nature in tracks like the one above or their more “Stomp and Stammering” nature like the version on the album. Bill Berry’s percussion has this very shocking and persistent beginning, a sense of prevailing order where the fable being shared is quite the opposite. Stipe’s mechanism of enunciating during various elements of the acoustic track pulls in the listener in the sad spectacle.
‘Strange’ is the second time that the band has covered a song from another band on a regular album. In this case, its Wire’s with the lyrics slightly altered to Michael’s own nervousness rather than Joey’s. It offers a nice segway into ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It’, a song that would be considered more popular now, especially with all the various “Doomsday” items that will hit the news, the song often becomes part of that news cycles soundtrack.
If we were old school, we would then flip sides and run into the song “The One I Love”. It’s the first time that Michael Stipe uses the word “Love” in any song and one listen to the caustic lyrics and one you realize that the reminiscent moment holds very little meaning. The simple message is Stipe doing Morrisey, “A simple prop to occupy my time”. However, on the live version on the Deluxe Edition that was released, we see a much more vulnerable side. The acoustic version here shows an even darker side.
Per the liner notes, it would appear that there were plenty of different versions of the song available and each one would seem to be reinvented but each would have a different story. For a song that repeats itself, it is one of the few that often feels so complex and yet at the same time, you can take a word like “Love” that Stipe had refused to use in a lyric before this and somehow made sure that it would be utterly complex, confusing and their first legitimate hit single.
The 25th Anniversary Edition of Document contains not the complete but most of the show from Utrecht, Holland from September 1987. The diehard fans out there will whine and scream that the second disc was not the complete show, choosing to leave off some cover tracks like the Clique’s ‘Superman’, which appeared, on ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’.
Others will complain that they would have preferred a demo concept, like the previous 2 reissues that contained early versions of songs worked on during that period of time. What I have found with Demo’s in the past is that while there will be a handful of the songs that will feel unique, there will be some that just do not feel all that different than the version that ended up on the album itself and will thus get 4 songs that feel partially interesting.
While this might satisfy the anal retentive R.E.M. fan wondering if it is true if a song was originally written with a mandolin in mind, the truth of the matter was that R.E.M. is a live band. For the fan that is introduced to R.E.M. with this album, the show that is attached is a worthy piece of history with one minor exception being the editing down of So. Central Rain to remove both Time After Time, and the Capella snippet of “Red Rain”, from the album. That part is a bit of a travesty because the medley is one of the most beautiful renditions of So. Central Rain that I had heard and for me there is a bit of sentimentality in that it was this B-side that had pushed me deeper into the R.E.M. discography looking for anything and everything R.E.M.
By the time of Document, Michael Stipe had been getting much more comfortable in the live setting taking on the role of the lead singer more prominently than before. While the band had grown by leaps and bounds, Stipe had exhibited a level of growing pains in front of the audience. Interviews were rough, as he would get tired of the same questions being asked and often make up answers while the other band mates would roll their eyes. If you read old interviews you will note that it is often Mike and Peter doing interviews for this reason.
When he got around to touring for Fables, he would often tell stories onstage about Old Man Kensey before the band would sing or discuss Brevis Mekis, i.e. the man behind the song ‘Life and How to Live It’ who split his house in half and would live in one side for awhile and would move and live on the other half. While the live show does contain a mention of Mekis during Life and How To Live It, it’s the ability of the songs to be injected full of energy that might be missing on the album versions. This is not to say that their music is boring on the albums but rather, unlike todays bands, the live sound often features less meddling and more emotion. While their earlier albums can be characterized with less studio work than their later years, they were never trying to be Pink Floyd either, expanding songs past the 10 minute mark
‘Oddfellows Local 151’, a song that is actually referencing a liquor store (The Firehouse is a liquor store in Athens) rather than the suggested thought that it might actually be a firehouse and Peewee was union member. Its duplicative meaning is often tricky and when realized, maybe even a little hilarious. As I am reminded from doing an Athens tour with Paul Butchart that we did pass by that Liquor store but did not see Peewee hanging around anywhere. The live track emanates more of the eeriness of the moment that you don’t feel as much on the regular album a song that in my opinion feels much more sanitized than on the live version.
Document is the last of the truly strong politically motivated albums the band released. I have always felt that “Green” has been a little flawed and considering some of the carefully worded lyrics for “Document”, “Green” always felt a bit more dumbed down, ‘Document’ is often complex , especially musically but I am always mindful of the lack of music and lyrics that can match the power of what Stipe penned to paper 25 years ago. A work of art.