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Friday, August 22, 2008

REMtrospective, 7: Document


Title: Document

Released on: Sept. 1, 1987

Favorite tracks: “Finest Worksong,” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” “King of Birds”

A thumbnail sketch. A jeweler’s stone. A mean idea to call my own.

Document could be my favorite R.E.M. album. Of course, I have a lot of favorites, including Murmur and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but Document is my favorite favorite. It may have the “biggest” and “tallest" sound of any of their albums. Certain “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” has their “fastest sound," although some tracks on Accelerate give the song a run for its money.

Document is the last R.E.M. album I bought on vinyl -- Green and all the subsequent ones, I bought on CD. That’s no doubt part of the reason why I associate the two sides of Document with having distinct identities. Side A seems to be about political action, and Side B seems to be more about disengagement, introspection and even immolation.

The A side songs tend to look outward at society, especially 1980s society of Reaganism (“Exhuming McCarthy”) and more general political corporatism (“Welcome to the Occupation,” “Disturbance at the Heron House” – at least, that’s how I interpret them). “McCarthy,” to me, introduces the bouncy, pop-happy REM of “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People.” REM's live-wire cover of “Strange” fits with an overall feeling of paranoia.

“It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Find)” isn’t just about the particularly 1980s style apocalyptic imagery (which ties in with other artifacts of the decade like Watchmen and the "Max Headroom" TV series). It’s also about sensory overload: the counterpoint part of the chorus, “It’s time I spent some time alone,” I think explains the song. Twenty years later, it's probably second to "Losing My Religion" as the band's signature, more recognizeable tune, even though it comes this close to being a wacky novelty song.

Like “Begin the Begin,” “Finest Worksong” is a rousing call to action: “The time to rise has been engaged.” The sound of “Finest Worksong,” incidentally, is just enormous – the chopping guitars make it sound like music for felling redwoods, while also having the driving beat of a war dance. It’s actually one of my three favorite songs to listen to when I stretch out before going on a run. (The other two, I’m sure you’d like to know, are “I Want to Take You Higher” by Sly and the Family Stone and “Channel Z” by that other Athens band, The B-52s).

Side A is like “The world is too much with us, late and soon,” to quote the the sonnet

(I thought it was Emily Dickinson, but looked it up – it’s actually William Wordsworth, the poet with the best name ever). Side B marks a strategic retreat from worldly matters. The Narrator of “The One I Love” is completely emotionally detached from whomever it is he loves. “King of Birds,” to me, suggests a kind of scientific detachment, along the lines of Albert Einstein. (I have no idea what the songs really about, but it gave me another one of those Proustian rushes when I heard it again for the first time in years.) The song ends with “Oddfellows Local 151” and its imagery of a holy fool who sits behind the firehouse and seems about as checked out from society as one could get.

To me the “climax” of the album actually comes with the second song of Side B, “Fireplace,” and the way it goes “Crazy, crazy world… Crazy, crazy times” and culminates with “Sweep the floor into the fireplace.” I don’t think the song’s calling for a literally, Earth-consuming conflagration, though. It’s more like a bonfire to cleanse all the paranoia and mental clutter and bad thoughts. I’d guess that easily half of the songs on Document contain imagery of fire, burning or lightning, including “Fireplace,” “Lightning Hopkins,” “Oddfellows Local 151” ("Firehouse!... Firehouse!..."), “The One I Love” (the way the chorus goes “Fire!” or rather, “Fi-yaaa-aaaa-aaa”). It’s interesting that Document came out the same year as Dead Letter Office which featured songs called ‘Burning Down’ and ‘Burning Hell’ – not to mention “Crazy,” with Document having plenty of music about madness as well.

Document very much marks the transition between “early” and “middle” R.E.M. It was their last album on I.R.S. Records (their next would be on Warner Bros.), but their first co-produced with Scott Litt. Litt and R.E.M. co-produced Document and all their subsequent albums through New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which are arguably their most popular recordings.

Early listening conditions: I mentioned that this was my last REM album on vinyl. I also saw REM on the Document tour twice, which was an unusual, music-fanboy thing for me to do. I caught them in Nashville at the beginning of the tour and at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta at the end. I seem to recall the Fox having a more elaborate show. The evening opened with a slide show project the words WANT and NEED in huge letters, and then cutting back and forth between them faster and faster: WANTNEEDWANTNEEDWANTNEED. I said one of my friends, "It’s ‘what we want and what we need!" And he replied “‘I’m getting them confused!’”—before they launched into “Finest Worksong.”

Incidentally, "It's the End of the World As We Know It" has a really lame "official" video of a young skatepunk in a house, but it's inspired lots of fan-videos and class editing projects that spell out the lyrics in words and/or pictures. This one's not bad, although I lost track of my favorite:

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Click here for Dead Letter Office.

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