We can take as a given that there are a lot of great songs on R.E.M’s two-disc retrospective, which has seen considerable airplay on my iPod since I picked up a copy late last year. They were around for 29 years, frequently touted as one of the best and most popular alt-rock bands for no less than a decade of that, and cranked out a series of singles from 1987 through the mid-90’s that reads like a murderer’s row: “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine.)” “The One I Love.” “Stand.” “Orange Crush.” “Losing My Religion.” “Everybody Hurts.” “Man on the Moon.” I don’t have to sell these songs to you, or expound about their qualities. If you know them, you know whether you like them. They comprise an amazing, individualistic, diverse discography of singles in and of themselves. Their fifth album, Document, came out the same year I was born; these songs have literally been in the background of my entire life. I have a strange affection for “Shiny Happy People,” as much as certain parties hate it (even within the group, I hear.) This goes back to when I was in grade 5, and I heard it on an episode of “Beavis & Butt-head,” and I then taught it to my friends as simply going “Shiny happy people / Shiny happy people, baby / Shiny happy people / Shiny happy people, baby...” endlessly. I wasn’t even that far off. My version might be better. My point is that R.E.M., when the spotlight was on them for that certain period, between Document and the departure of Bill Berry due to health issues in 1997, took the opportunity to lob some of the most incredible singles to hit the Top 40, which endure today. So for that reason alone, getting all these songs gathered together in one place, this album is probably already worth your time and money. (Hint: You can buy it for only ten bucks at the store where I work.)
Fans will like it for the way it captures the narrative of the band's beginning, middle and end. New or casual fans will be attracted to the depth and breadth of songwriting quality that rings throughout. People who are, for whatever reason, opposed to the willfully difficult nature of the band, will probably just have to go on with their lives, although I have to believe there is something on this album that will resonate with them. They are that good.
I don't have any great insight as to what this band really was, or what spurred them to create all these amazing songs. I'm just as baffled by what they were capable of now as when I only knew 9 or 10 of them. They just seem like a restlessly creative band of smart, sensitive dreamers who loved music and wanted to make the best possible versions of it that they were capable. They were exceptional when they were underground, they were working on their own level when they were pop icons, and they continued to push themselves when they had faded. That last era is of the most interest to me, because it seems like they struggle, sometimes, with understanding who they were supposed to be, as a lot of great bands do. Surely there were missteps, and if the wide net cast over their final 15 years is an indication, a lot of them, but there are those diamonds in the rough, especially at the end of the set. From beginning to end, they were onto something, something all their own. I can't understand the mindset that creates "Gardening at Night," "Orange Crush" or "Uberlin," all these songs when I examine them seem to have come from another universe. But they've been so deeply ingrained in ours, just by lasting this long, that we take for granted that this is just what music sounds like sometimes. Sometimes we know the songs, but we forget to listen to them. Putting it all together, you really see what a body of work it is. "Definitive" is really the word for this one.