Integrity has always been a big part of R.E.M. When the band finally did make the jump to the bigs, some fans, not surprisingly, didn’t take it well. Green—R.E.M.’s first release after signing a healthy $10 million deal with Warner Bros. in early 1988—wasn’t so much a departure as it was a band pushing itself and using its major label powers for good. They definitely didn’t sell out.
Green—getting the reissue treatment for its 25th anniversary—stands as one of R.E.M.’s finest hours. Depending on who you ask, of course. Those who formed a relationship with the band early on will let you know their feelings, and will do so vehemently. “Context is huge. Watching ARCO Arena go nuts for ‘Stand’ made me want to barf,” a friend told me recently. I don’t have that association with R.E.M., having rifled through their catalog well after the fact. But we all know exactly what he’s talking about.
Now Green is 25, which makes us old. In hindsight it’s hard to believe it took five albums for R.E.M. to sign with a major label. A lot of that, of course, had to do with their contract with I.R.S. Records. The reissue gives us a chance to listen with fresh ears, and perhaps give those who were there from the beginning an opportunity to revisit the record without the baggage.
Considering the fact Green was R.E.M.’s slickest sounding album up to that point, a trend that started with 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, this remaster is less noticeable than that of earlier records. But it sounds great all the same, especially Mike Mills’ bass lines, which have always been the rubber cement that holds Peter Buck’s jangle and strum together. And Buck’s experimentation with the mandolin (an instrument he was still in the process of learning during the recording) is crystalline. The entire record pops. Then again, it always has thanks to Scott Litt’s bright production.
If anything, Green was the band’s most diverse record up to that point, both musically and lyrically. R.E.M.’s subtle politicking frolics with more playful themes. And stripped-down folky numbers bump up against full-on power pop. The first earful fans got was the booming rollick of “Pop Song 89,” a song whose title says it all. That’s followed up with the equally good-timing “Get Up,” a song with massive guitars and hand claps that was purportedly written by Stipe about Mills, who was known to sleep late during the recording sessions. Within that song comes the music box breakdown, an idea that is said to have come to drummer Bill Berry in a dream—yet another piece of R.E.M. lore that will undoubtedly be argued in the comments section of this review.
Those songs, and a song like “Stand,” stand out because they went against most people’s perceptions of R.E.M. In an interview with The Quietus, Stipe jokingly referred to them as “our fruitloop songs.” Those bubblegum singles were countered with the delicate neo-folk numbers “Hairshirt” and “You Are the Everything,” both of which feature Buck’s mandolin strums. Those contrasts may have been jarring for some at the time, but they’re also part of what has made Green age so well.
The record’s centerpiece, of course, is “World Leader Pretend,” a song that will still melt you. The band provided printed lyrics on the inner sleeve for the first time for that song, even though Stipe’s words still remained open to interpretation. At the same time Stipe’s vocals were becoming more pronounced and even a bit rangier, a sign of his growing confidence as a singer.
That confidence carried over into the band’s live performances. The accompanying disc in this reissue includes a live recording from a Nov. 10, 1989 gig in Greensboro, N.C., taken from the band’s massive 130-date Green World Tour. Hearing songs like “Cuyahoga” and “Exhuming McCarthy” on the same playing field as newer material illustrates how cohesive their body of work really is.
It can be argued that R.E.M. were at the peak of their powers in 1988. That doesn’t necessarily mean Green is the band’s best record. But the beauty of digging into R.E.M.’s catalog is that there’s so much to love about each record (the first 10 at least). They’re one of those bands where your favorite album is likely to change from year to year, or week to week. No one’s Top 10 list is the same. Where Green appears on that list is open to debate. To some, it was the beginning of the end. Twenty-five years later, it sounds like an anchor of something great.