Released on: Sept. 1, 1987
Favorite tracks: Finest Worksong, Its the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), King of Birds
A thumbnail sketch. A jewelers 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 Its 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. Thats 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, thats 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.
Its the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Find) isnt 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). Its also about sensory overload: the counterpoint part of the chorus, Its 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. Its actually one of my three favorite songs to listen to when I stretch out before going on a run. (The other two, Im sure youd 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 its 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 dont think the songs calling for a literally, Earth-consuming conflagration, though. Its more like a bonfire to cleanse all the paranoia and mental clutter and bad thoughts. Id 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). Its 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, "Its what we want and what we need!" And he replied Im 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="http://www.youtube.com/v/KmBDgAcIt-0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
Click here for Dead Letter Office.
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