(Part 2 in a series of 3 in honor of R.E.M. and a reaction to their decision to break up; here's part 1.)
Green - So R.E.M. jumps to the majors. And the handwringing amongst the loyal begins. Verdict: not really warranted. Green is not a sellout. It does announce that these boys are going for as big and stadium-ready a sound as possible, but they're staying true to their instincts; it's easy to hear Green as an extension of Document, albeit somewhat more personal and musically more varied. Unfortunately, the album is a bit scattershot. I can't really explain "Stand," and "I Remember California" and "The Wrong Child" are dreadful. Still, songs like the oblique and kinetic "Pop Song 89," the delicate "Hairshirt," and the melancholy Big Statement "World Leader Pretend" almost redeem it.
Out of Time - Turns out that R.E.M. maybe just had to get their water legs after suddenly being thrust into the spotlight. Or maybe they just needed a long break after their exhausting world tour. But whatever the explanation, they sound like a band rejuvenated here, and maybe this is officially where the second phase of their career should actually begin. This one has received perhaps the most mixed reviews of all their albums. I think it depends on whether you like the perfect production over most of the music here, or whether it's too cloying. Me? I think it's absolutely fantastic. Beautiful, sweet pop gem after pop gem. Of course, "Losing My Religion" is the crown jewel, but there really isn't a bad moment here...not even Stipe's bucolic improvisation "Country Feedback," which I personally don't care for much. Let's make it easy and say what other songs aren't exactly my favorites: "Low," "Shiny Happy People" (duh), and "Half A World Away." Everything else is golden.
Automatic for the People - Basically the darker twin of Out of Time. Not as consistent, it has higher highs and lower lows. But it's still as lovely, pop-heavy, and accessible...and produced as impeccably as Out of Time. Just don't expect a shiny happy time. Yet when the orchestral sadness hits, expect that...uh..."Sweetness Follows." On the best songs, the lyrics will bring you down, then in the next breath, they'll convince you not to slash your wrists after all. Or they'll have you pining for younger days, or steeling yourself for an uncertain future. Really, really worthy. (Solipsistic note: I devoted nearly half the songs to my favorite mix tape in high school (hey kids! remember those?), and probably should have included a few more for good measure. I also transcribed the gorgeous "Nightswimming" to sheet music (full score as well as individual parts), then gave it to some orchestra friends to perform with me for our high school spring concert.)
Monster - Bill Berry apparently threatened to quit the band if they didn't put out an honest-to-Pete rock record after two unabashed pop albums. And here's the mess they came up with. To its credit, this album is certainly a bold maneuver, and I would argue it is one of the most important albums R.E.M. ever made; Monster laid the blueprint for many worthy songs afterward, and without it, latter-day R.E.M. would have been awfully monochromatic. But the album itself is just not that great. "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" boasts the least-inspired reverse guitar solo I've ever heard. And Michael Stipe sounds just wimpy and whiny on "Tongue" and "Strange Currencies." The rest of it just sounds like the band is trying too hard to rock, and if ever there was a doubt that R.E.M.'s strengths lie in midtempo ballads, Monster ended the argument once and for all. The only really worthy moments are "Crush With Eyeliner," a glamalicious number that just struts with attitude, and the first ten seconds of "Let Me In," which wash over you like a huge, cathartic, sonic tidal wave. It's a shame the rest of the song merely sounds masturbatory. (Actually, now that I hear it again, the urgent pulse behind "Bang and Blame" is pretty compelling, too.)
New Adventures in Hi-Fi - The first R.E.M. album (aside from Chronic Town and Dead Letter Office) I never got, thanks to Monster scaring me away. Until just a few weeks ago, at least. And my first thought on listening to this for the first time: "Oh, so this is what they were wanting to accomplish with Monster." But whereas that album had more than a few fun moments, New Adventures is the first in their catalog that actually feels like a bit of drudgery to sit through; not coincidentally, it's also their longest album. Bristling with electricity and dryness and movement, it's the sound of a band in the midst of crisis and transition, fighting with buzzsaw guitars and feedback to stay afloat against the powers that be. They do Neil Young and Crazy Horse proud in "Low Desert," tastefully cannibalize themselves with "Bittersweet Me," and somehow make an otherwise annoying siren seem essential to the urgent "Leave." Good road trip music, which makes sense, since it was more or less recorded on tour and has a similar feel to Jackson Browne's Running on Empty.