Album Review: “Green” (25th Anniversary Re-Release) by R.E.M.

May, 18, 2013

I’ve always loved R.E.M. For many years, they were my favorite band of all time. When the band broke up in September 2011, I was heartbroken. Even though I hadn’t liked their last five albums, I felt like I was losing a friend. I guess that’s what happens when you spend most of your life loving a band to that extent.

That being said, I never liked Green. In fact, Green is my second least favorite of the five albums R.E.M. released off its initial Warner Bros. contract.

Released in 1988, Green represented a seismic shift for R.E.M., both creatively and commercially. Once the country’s most popular cult band, R.E.M. had left I.R.S. Records, the indie label that had released the band’s first five albums (plus a debut E.P. and a B-sides/rarities collection prior to the band’s departure) for greener pastures (sorry…). The band believed I.R.S. lacked sufficient resources to distribute their albums overseas, and given how the UK has become their main commercial base in recent years as their US popularity has waned, that decision has been thoroughly vindicated. R.E.M. had outgrown I.R.S. and it was painfully obvious to everyone. Plus, Warner Bros. offered $10 million, while promising them complete creative control. Who wouldn’t have taken that deal?

Warner Bros. recently released a “25th Anniversary” special edition of the album, which includes a live album recorded during the band’s penultimate concert from the mammoth Green world tour. Would my opinion of the album change after listening to it, in full, for the first time in well over 10 years?

In a word, no. Green is still a weak effort. However, I do have a newfound appreciation for the album and its place in R.E.M. lore.

Initially, I didn’t like Green because it didn’t sound like R.E.M. It wasn’t because I thought they sold out (anyone who says they would have turned down that Warner Brothers offer is lying). It wasn’t because of the album’s slick production or the presence of unabashedly commercial singles like “Stand” or “Get Up.” Indeed, the band’s move towards a more commercial sound was already well underway, with 1986’s “Lifes Rich Pageant” being the true starting point for the change in R.E.M.’s music.

What I didn’t like about the album was that it lacked cohesion and purpose. The two albums that preceded Green: Lifes Rich Pageant and Document stood out because they each had a unifying theme that gave the records a sense of direction that was maintained, even when the band recorded songs that departed from that theme. Case in point: Document is an angry, political protest record full of songs comparing the Reagan Era to Joe McCarthy’s time. The album’s biggest hit, “The One I Love,” is not about politics, but its biting tone and fiery riffs fit perfectly into the album’s overall framework.

The only theme that seems to be at play for Green is that the band doesn’t know what to do now that they’ve landed that big contract and are all millionaires. In order to ensure a platinum record, R.E.M. could have recorded a bunch of mainstream pop songs, but that would be the very definition of selling out, a notion the band was extremely defensive about at the time. Instead, they split the baby, recording several ironic pop songs such as the aforementioned “Stand” and “Get Up,” as well as “Pop Song ’89”– songs that would sell and get lots of play-time on the radio, but could always be called “satirical” in case the band got criticized for going bubblegum (they learned their lesson later on with “Shiny Happy People” – satire doesn’t always register with fans).

They could have gone the AC/DC route and stuck with what had always worked for them by releasing a record that sounded like its predecessors. Instead, the band veered violently in the opposite direction, ditching the Byrds-influenced jangle pop sound that characterized most of its I.R.S. output. It’s been said that Peter Buck’s guitar is the most important part of R.E.M.’s sound. Here, his trademark sound is muted as the band seems intent on experimenting with different arrangements and instruments (like mandolin). There are several acoustically driven numbers, such as “You Are the Everything,” “The Wrong Child” and “Untitled,” which foreshadowed the direction the band would take on their next album, Out of Time.

The band even toned down the album’s political message. While the album’s title and cover art obviously suggest an environmental theme, there only a couple of songs that even obliquely reference the environment, such as “Hairshirt” (“Run a carbon-black test on my jaw”) and “I Remember California” (“I remember redwood trees”). None of the songs address the issue head-on (unlike “Lifes Rich Pageant” which had “Cuyahoga” and “Fall on Me”). Instead, the political songs on the album are more subtle and and introspective, such as the excellent “World Leader Pretend” and the Vietnam-themed “Orange Crush.” I have no idea why they did this. Maybe they were looking for a change of pace after two political albums in a row prior to Green. Maybe they didn’t want to alienate their new, global audience. That’s not to say the band stopped being political. If anything, Michael Stipe seemed to crank it up to 11 in his life both in and outside of the band.

Ultimately, what makes Green stand out is that it is a fascinating portrait of the band at a critical crossroads in their career. If the album had included a documentary covering the making of the album, then this reissue would be a must buy. The live disc that accompanies the album is a fine addition to R.E.M.’s concert discography. Mike Mills even told Rolling Stone that the concert was one of the best from the Green tour. I would have been more interested in hearing the final night’s concert from Atlanta, when the band performed in its entirety, as well as it’s first album, Murmur. It would have made for a fascinating contrast between the albums that (at the time) bookended R.E.M.’s career.

In the end, I would recommend saving your money until 2017 when the Automatic for the People 25th anniversary set comes out.

Grade: B

April 22, 2013


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