The subplot that is my personal journey through the catalog of R.E.M. continues today with their fifth album, “Document”. So far, this journey has been a bit marred by inconsistent releases, and I’m still looking for that top-to-bottom great record from R.E.M. “Document” comes much closer than any of their first four albums, and not coincidentally, it syncs up with a change in production and a continued shift towards a rougher rock sound, along with two more timeless hits and some hidden gems.
The record opens with a really good driving rocker, “Finest Worksong”, and I really love Peter Buck’s guitar work on this song. The next song I really like is the quirky track “Exhuming McCarthy”, where Michael Stipe draws a parallel between the overly nationalistic 1950s of the Joe McCarthy era with the Reagan movement of the 1980s. It has a great basic melody and I love the chorus, and as always Mike Mills provides some great backing vocals.
The great guitar work continues on “Strange”, which oddly has echoes of both Green Day and Bruce Springsteen in the intro. Hmm… who influences who here? This track is representative of the overall higher quality I think R.E.M. delivered on this record.
One of the most memorable songs ever by R.E.M. is “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. The frenetic vocals by Stipe and Mills, the amazing chord progressions, and Bill Berry’s high pace drums make this such a great song, and it truly is one of their biggest signature songs. And if you like ridiculous movie scenes, who can forget Chris Farley and David Spade trying and failing to keep pace with this song as they drove across the Midwest selling brake pads for Callahan Auto Parts?
Side two opens with another R.E.M. classic, “The One I Love”. This one is much darker in its desperation, but is another powerful rocker, and a song I would have loved to see live. “Fireplace” has an oddly placed saxophone as the band expands their approach and sound, and “Lightnin’ Hopkins” has a guitar and drum mix that feels like this riff and track would have fit well on Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti” or “Presence”.
Overall, this is certainly my favorite R.E.M. album to date, and probably no coincidence it became their first platinum album as their mass appeal continued to build. The search for the perfect R.E.M. album continues, but this one was a big step in the right direction.