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REM’s breakthrough album Document may not be the unlikeliest record to crack the Billboard top ten, but it’s one of the more subversive, a collection of brooding lefty folk rock and howling Southern Gothic that went on to swallow middle America whole, its extraordinary centrepiece – a brutal anti-love song whose chorus is simply a roar of the word “fire” – becoming the mind-bogglingly inappropriate soundtrack to numerous late Eighties weddings and dances.
It generally seems to be viewed as a good REM album rather than a great one – you’ll never see it top any sort of list of the band’s work, but at the same time it’s rare you’ll find anyone with a word against it. I dunno: maybe people find its angry confidence less loveable than the sorrow and yearning to be found on other records; maybe it’s because of the slightly ridiculous cover of Wire’s ‘Strange’.
For me, it’s possibly to the credit of the Clinton administration that when I first heard REM’s fifth album, ten years or so after its release, I didn’t really get it. I got bits of it, probably, and I was aware that most of the first half was intensely political, but with Western imperialism at a low(ish) ebb, Document seemed to lack a certain context, something that REM themselves implicitly acknowledged with a Nineties output that was more emotional than political.
Hopefully there is no need to spell it out, but a record that kicks off with a bombastic celebration of the dignity of labour (‘Finest Worksong’) followed by a track condemning illegal state intervention in foreign countries (‘Welcome to the Occupation’) followed by one about the resurrection of the extreme American right (‘Exhuming McCarthy’) followed by an Animal Farm-esque send up of the debasement of Washington politics (‘Disturbance at the Heron House’) sounds pretty relevant in 2012. Document drifted out of time for a while, and now it’s back, with a shiny remaster and a bonus concert on the second CD.
I mean, I’m kind of taking guesses at what at least two of those songs mean precisely. But the wonder of prime REM is that all four members were so utterly in tune with each other that Stipe’s tendency towards opaqueness doesn’t interfere with the sense of the song. ‘Finest Worksong’s precise, powerful, pounding calls to mind labour, construction, effort; ‘Welcome to the Occupation’s nuances come secondary to Stipe’s unnerving final scream of “listen to me”, a pliant, urgent plea against national insanity; the run of ‘Disturbance at the Heron House’, ‘Strange’ and ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ is that descent into skittering, half-elated descent into chaos. Though ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ and ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ could legitimately be called protest music, the first half of Document (dubbed Page on the original cassette and vinyl) is less that than an emotional articulation of the band’s tremendous sense of unease at the moral disintegration of their country.
Document’s second half (or Leaf) is even more spooked, though the politics have been left behind. If Page was the world collapsing, Leaf has a distinctly post-apocalyptic vibe, full of feral nature and dissonant screeches of sound. Birds are a recurrent theme: on the elementally intense ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins’ queasy daggers of guitar blaze out while for a chorus Stipe simply shrieks the word “crow!”; later, on the luminescent calm of ‘King of Birds’ he murmurs about some internal landscape in which “a hundred million birds fly away”. Rather than end on a note of calm, the record finally immolates itself in sound with the apocalyptic ‘Oddfellows Local 151’, a storm of scything feedback and creeping bass that ends the record often portrayed as one of REM’s more meat and potatoes records on probably its creepiest final note, Stipe’s bloodcurdling repeat yell of “firehouse” (a lot of repeat yells on this record) gradually losing form and shape over the music’s sinister scraping.
And in the middle, of course, are the two songs that turned this into a multi-million seller, the two songs that looked forward to REM’s future as an oblique but nonetheless mainstream rock band. Of the two, I don’t really feel there’s much to add about ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)’ – it’s the first and best of REM’s disposable pop songs, a motormouth cavalcade of strangely decipherable lyrics running into a perfect soundbite chorus, given a sense of yearning humanity by Mike Mills’ “time I had some time alone” counter vocal.
But ‘The One I Love’ is the album’s centrepiece, literally and thematically. If The Beatles had successfully distilled and perfected the love song in 1962 with ‘Love Me Do’, then 25 years later REM did the same for the anti-love song. There is not an ounce of fat on ‘The One I Love’, wave after wave of hard, fat bass and cresting arpeggios of guitar that crash and break insistently for three relentless, melodic minutes, Stipe using just 20 words in the verses and one in the chorus to hit his mark. “This one goes out to the one I love/this one goes out to the one I’ve left behind” he declares in each verse; then: “a simple prop, to occupy my time” the first two verses and “another prop, has occupied my time” on the last. It is an utterly cold, brutal lyric – perfect and cruel in its minimalism. What catapults it into the sublime is that chorus: the song has one of Stipe’s most legible, clinical lyrics, but that yell of “fire” feels like it’s coming from another place, time, world entirely, a gateway between the old and the new REM.
With this reissue we’ve reached the end of REM’s indie label years, and it’s not clear whether Warners era reissues are likely to follow. If they don’t, it won’t be a disaster: on Document Scott Litt signed on as REM producer for the next decade, and there is little real need to remaster his sympathetic, unfussy recordings. Here ‘Finest Worksong’ gains a bit of bite, but the only serious beneficiary of the remaster is ‘Oddfellows Local 151’, which is far louder and more aggressive than the original version, and deservedly so. The punchy, Scott Litt-mixed German live show on the second disc is nice, but it points to the fact that there’s not really a whole lot of rarities left in the vault at this stage.
If it does end here it’s a good time to say goodbye to the series because we’re saying goodbye to one version of REM. Document would be the last time the band sounded truly Southern, truly wild, truly other; more prosaically, the last time you could really feel the folk influence. Document is subtitled File Under Fire because fire is a recurring theme in Stipe’s lyrics. But it’s more than that: Document is the crucible where REM forged their future, and the furnace where they burned down their past. The future was calling; the South was burning.
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