Classic Album: R.E.M. – Document

Like many R.E.M. fans here in the UK, it wasn’t until the early 90s that I first became aware of them through hit singles like “Shiny Happy People”, “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts”. As a result of this, I am most familiar with the albums from their period signed to Warner Brothers Records. Sure, I sought out a copy of Murmur, just like popular opinion dictated I should, but I just didn’t connect with it in the way that I had been told I would. Call me weird, but I like lyrics I can hear.

Document was R.E.M.s last album before they signed to Warner Brothers, and is probably their most riff heavy album until 1994’s unloved Monster, and the point where it is generally agreed that Michael Stipe had abandoned his mumbled delivery for actual singing. Peter Buck’s guitar grunts, and the now well drilled rhythm section of Bill Berry and Mike Mills provide a reassuring amount of heft to proceedings. Document is the sound of a band brimming with the confidence of an act who know that they are the very best in the world at what they do.

As well regarded as the first half of R.E.M.s career is, Document is home to most of my favourite songs of theirs from their I.R.S. Records years. You just can’t argue with an album that features tunes like “Finest Worksong”, “Strange”, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and “The One I Love”, particularly the sequence of the latter trio in the middle of Document, as they just represent everything great about R.E.M. as pop musicians. Sure, they’d have to move to Warner Brothers to enjoy the big hits, but Document captures something truly elemental, before they had access to the deep pockets of a major record label.

True, such is the brilliance of the sequence of “Strange”, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and “The One I Love”, that the rest of Document struggles to match their heights, but the remainder of the album certainly isn’t filler. Document finds R.E.M. slowly coming to the realisation that they could be monumentally successful if they weren’t careful. Perhaps this is the reason hat there is something reassuringly off kilter about “Fireplace”, even with the skronking saxophone that sounds just that little bit out of place.

Released at a time when rock music still didn’t know what it wanted to be when it grew up, Document provides an alt-rock manifesto that R.E.M. wouldn’t adhere to themselves, but nevertheless provided a blueprint for countless acts to follow years later. An energised, intelligent, well balanced alt-rock album, the likes of which Mills, Buck and Stipe simply forgot how to make following the departure of Berry from the drum stool, Document is among R.E.M.s very best albums, and deserves to be celebrated as such.

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