R.E.M., Green, 1989

I know an R.E.M. fan who loved them right up until Document. When Green, came out—their major label debut—he was so appalled he dropped them for about ten years, missed out on Automatic For The People and only discovered it in the zeroes. As for me, I got into R.E.M. through Green and Eponymous both around the same time. From there I delved a little into their back catalogue, Life’s Rich Pageant and Document. Got Murmur at the end of the 90s and finally understood what I’d been missing out on, but that was the end of my interest in R.E.M. I paid little attention to their stream of albums through the 00s. Green may not hold a lot of credibility these days but since I got a hold of the vinyl last year and played it again, some of it still sounds pretty good. My ties to Green are personal— (1) it was my introduction to R.E.M. and (2) I bought it in the year it came out, thus it has that extra resonance borne of timeliness. Revisiting it in 2011/12 I thought maybe I ought to actually sit down and try to glean something from the lyrics, something I’d never really done before. So I gave it some thought and … didn’t really come up with much. Quite how the album addresses environmentalist issues as per its ‘Green’ title is beyond me.

Listening to Green now, I guess some songs like “Pop Song 89” and “Stand,” likeable though they are, may seem like prettified pop fodder to the diehard R.E.M. fan, but I think nearly every song here has a decent melody. Anyway, to me it was a fresh sound – in 1989 I was ensconced in the gloomy sound of bands like The Cure and Joy Division. There are probably other albums I listened to in the 80s that are more deserving of a spot in my “Bumstead in the 80s,” but Green is important because, along with the Violent Femmes, the Cure, and The Pixies, it was one of my first major moves away from top 40 pap, even if it wasn’t the most ‘alternative’ of R.E.M. albums. So, without further waffle, let’s go greening…

Pop Song 89… is a rather nutty song about … what exactly? Meeting someone you don’t know and feeling awkward? A fast pop beat with wicked wiggly riffs and an overly repetitive structure. “Hello I’m sorry, I lost myself / I think I thought you were someone else / Should we talk about the weather? (Hi, hi, hi) / Should we talk about the government (Hi, hi, hi).” Yah, but titling the song “Pop Song 89” further suggests that Stipe’s either singing about (a) shallowness, (b) meaninglessness (c) feeling lost at the end of the decade, or (d) feeling lost in post-modernism. The lyrics are fragmentary, stuttered, uncertain. Undoubtedly there is irony here, but quite where the target of Stipe’s indictment lies, remains unclear to me. Probably making average pop art as a means to parody bad pop art has never been a good idea. That all said, it’s by no means unlikable.

Get Up… the pure pop and inarticulate nature of “Pop Song 89” continues into this song with more power chords and lyrical fragments such as “Where does time go? / I don’t know,” “Life is rough … I know life is hard / Where to turn? Where to turn? / Dreams they complicate my life.” There’s a neat but very short mid-song pause – twinkly bells. Once again, our man Stipe is missing something, confused, spun around, mixing the waking life with the dreamt one and not being sure which is which. This might have something to do with his chosen career path. There’s a neat stutter guitar effect and like most of the songs, one or two members of the band provide harmonizing and backing vocal effects which work as great hooks.

You Are The Everything… the first stand out track which opens with the night time ambience of cicadas. Once more, our inarticulate narrator struggles desperately to cope with the world around him: “Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing / I’m very scared for this world / I’m very scared for me / Eviscerate your memory.” Something about Stipe’s front and back vocals sounds to me like the muppets, mildly comical. There’s a shimmering organ sound throughout, some gorgeous acoustic guitar picking and a lovely mandolin vibe warming the song. In the end all he can do is admire the stars. “I think about the world a lot and I cry,” he says, sensitive chap. Fortunately, “Everything is beautiful / And she is so beautiful / She is so young and old / I look at her and I see the beauty / Of the light of music.” The beauty of the light of music, captured very prettily by the band. “For you alone / You are the everything.” Love this song.

Stand… yet another super-catchy pop song in which the poor lost singer takes it right back to basics. Cue wobbly organ line to open and kick it: “Stand in the place where you live,” he commands us, in order that we might “think about direction,” and wonder why we never did before, as if he’s the poet opening our eyes to what’s right in front of us—direction! Thanks Michael. My feet are going to be on the ground, my head is here to move me around, and no I never did wonder too much about direction until now. Which way is north really? And who’s to say the sun sets in the ‘west’? Ridiculous! Basic pop beat, simple power chords, neat wah-wah effects. Overall mood is set to a vague optimism. “Stand!” I like that one repeated note on the piano, bing bing bing bing bing bing bing bing, and I really like Stipe’s enunciated ‘d’ at song-enduh.

World Leader Pretend… was always my favourite song on the record, though it might be hard to explain why. I just love the idea of someone writing a song called “World Leader Pretend” and then enumerating the things he can do as world leader. It’s pop too, but it has a slightly mysterious sound about it, with pedal steel lines. “I sit at my table and wage war on myself / It seems like it’s all…it’s all for nothing.” And that’s an important line because I read this song as explaining the pointlessness of power. If you get to the ‘top’ and control the world, for what purpose do you then exist? Do you play war games to amuse yourself? “I’ve a rich understanding of my finest defenses / I proclaim that claims are left unstated / I demand a rematch / I decree a stalemate.” It’s a perfect sentiment for the end of the eighties. Perhaps it’s a self-help manifesto in the Foucauldian mould—how to take one’s life back from the powers that be: “This is my world / And I am the world leader pretend / This is my life / And this is my time / I have been given the freedom / To do as I see fit.” The vibe is much mellower here, and the mood, subdued and solemn.

The Wrong Child… there does appear to be a theme running through this album—something about struggling mentally with the world around you, struggling to cope, to fit in, to assert yourself, to think what to say, to make sense even. In this song, Stipe plays the part of ‘the wrong child’ who has never been outside, who knows he’s the odd one out, and when other kids coming running over to him, he starts to panic. Suddenly we’re back to that inarticulate narrator of the first two songs: “What do I do? / What can I do? / What should I do? / What do I say? / What can I say?” Musically, there’s no beat or bass—just lots of pretty delicate guitar and mandolin, layered vocals, a kind of experimental piece, which I think works just fine. It’s all carried on this sort of wave of high notes, always tipping forward, only achieving a sort of resolution when the piano joins during the instrumental break. “I’m not supposed to be like this / But it’s okaaaaay / Okaaaaay?”

Orange Crush… flip the record and suddenly things turn political, and though I probably couldn’t have picked it myself from the lyrics alone, common knowledge supports the theory this song is about veteran victims of agent orange: “I’ve got my spine / I’ve got my orange crush.” Rhythm and guitars are back to sub-standard power pop with harmonizing. “We are agents of the free,” presumably meaning soldiers who fight against communism: “I’ve had my fun and now it’s time / To serve your conscience overseas.” Oblique ironic stuff though. Perhaps the persona Stipe’s been wearing for the whole album thus far is a mentally retarded Vietnamese child-victim of agent orange. We get parts of a speech through a bullhorn, army chanting, and helicopter blades spinning. Very catchy although I fail to see how this is that much different to earlier R.E.M. material.

Turn You Inside-Out… may also be political, though again, the lyrics are obtuse to the point of opacity. The main chorus, “I believe in what you do / I believe in watching you / It’s what you do,” suggests, at a guess, political activism, each citizen’s responsibility to keep tabs on their government, but hey, I could be very wide of the mark. “I could turn you inside out” sings Stipe, saying that what he chooses “not to do” might be just as much a political act as acting itself. Hm. The pace here is slow rock, a loud clear drum sound, and a more noisy mix of instruments, swirly organ, chiming power chords. It’s the only song here that fails to catch my interest though. I prefer the tentative, fragile, quirkier stuff like this next odd number…

Hairshirt… which takes opaque lyrical fragmentation a step too far for me. We’re back in the territory of “The Wrong Child” again—mandolin, a few bass notes, all high on a wire, claws clenched, holding on. I like the vocal here too. It’s more thoughtful, enigmatic, and … well … sad. “Sooooo alone / My life.” Here Stipe sings about hanging his hairshirt, the garment itself usually a metaphor for something uncomfortable. “All my life / I’ve searched for this / Heeere I am / In your life,” which is “a beautiful life,” thus linking us back to “You Are The Everything.” The song never resolves itself though, and has no real changes, although it has massive emotive appeal.

I Remember California… for the longest time I only heard this as some kind of nostalgia trip for the sunny state, which I now doubt very much. Perhaps irony of some kind informs the lyric but it would take a more serious scholar than I to unpick these words for their meaning. I like the opening though: “I remember Redwood trees / Bumper cars and wolverines / The ocean’s trident submarines / Lemons, limes and tangerines / I remember this.” Maybe California has been devastated by an earthquake, a nice line in post-apocalypticism. Nice slow melody, meaningful in the ominous interplay between bass and guitar in the bridge. “History is made to seem unfair.” It’s such a lovely nostalgic sound. Stipe’s voice really yearns here with long slow pleas. Then we get some great harmonizing with Mike Mills, “Low ebb / High tide / The lowest ebb and the highest tide.” Enchanting.

[Untitled]… ends the album on a positive note of encouragement: “All I really want to say is / Keep her warm and keep him strong.” Nice syncopated drum beat and some great melodies with Mills or someone echoing Stipe’s lines behind him. “This world is big (this world is big) / And so awake (and so awake)” etc. This is another goodie; mainly I love the criss-crossing vocal lines. There are a couple of minor changes, but the instrumentation uses interesting effects here and there with a nice fuzzy guitar sound. Stipe’s lead vocal works wonders, “Just hold her / And keep her strong.” Fade out.

Well, the upshot is that I still like this record a lot. The poppier numbers aren’t too bad, the lyrics will always remain mostly a mystery to me, but there’s several truly gorgeous moments spread across the album, such that it flows and changes enough to stay interesting. Several reviews I read often criticized it as a ‘failed experiment’ which probably only makes sense to the seasoned R.E.M. fan I suppose. I don’t get that at all. I’d like to know exactly which ‘experiments’ are considered fails and which successes. In my reckoning, the best songs here are “You Are The Everything,” “Hairshirt,” “World Leader Pretend,” and “The Wrong Child,” with no filler as such, but perhaps some fairly generic pop music contained within.

Green was Alan Bumstead’s 17th Favourite Album in the 80s.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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