R.E.M. has gone easy on the repackages and rarities sets since the band’s 2011 dissolution.
R.E.M. has gone easy on the repackages and rarities sets since the band’s 2011 dissolution. Yes, there have been the anniversary reissue of landmark albums such as Automatic for the People and Out of Time Then, 2014 brought about the release of two “MTV Unplugged” performances (one from 1991, at the height of the show’s commercial appeal, and one from 2001), but those have been rolled out at tasteful intervals that have not given the appearance of needlessly draining fans of cash. Either Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry have very good accountants who’ve kept them flush with cash, or the guys really don’t feel the need to be like virtually every other act that’s sloughed off its mortal coil.
The eight-disc collection gathers a series of BBC performances, ranging from 1984 to 2014, with chronology being of no concern. The disc moves swiftly between a March 1991 performance for the radio program “Sessions into the Night,” flashes forward to a 1998 session for John Peel, then to 2003, then 2008. The material chosen ranges from the familiar/overly familiar (“Orange Crush,” “Losing My Religion”) with the unexpected, including a take on the Editors’ “Munich” and some latter-day gems, including “Imitation of Life.”
From there, we get a full October 25, 1998 appearance comprised of 12 tunes including the stately coffeehouse folk of “Half a World Away,” and “New Test Leper” (from the sometimes maligned 1996 set New Adventures in Hi-Fi) sounds more muscular than some might remember it. Pieces such as “Lotus” and “At My Most Beautiful” remind us that after 1994 R.E.M., for better or worse, was never quite the band it had once been. What had changed? Maybe something in the spirit of the simplicity that had occupied earlier times, maybe the novelty of Stipe’s lyrics lacked the sense of the new they once carried, maybe nothing had really changed and it just became fashionable not to like one of the most beloved bands in American music between 1983 and 1995.
There is a sense of rediscovery that comes with virtually any set like this and there’s plenty to remind us how much R.E.M. kicked with rabid ferocity. Two discs culled from a 1995 Milton Keynes performance are critical to that understanding. With one of its most focused and angriest albums still fresh on everyone’s mind (1994’s Monster) and the original four-man lineup still intact, the band clearly came to conquer.
The two discs lean heavily on the LP (heavier than most veteran acts would lean into a new record these days): “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Crush With Eyeliner” open things up while “Tongue,” “Strange Currencies,” “Star 69,” “I Took Your Name” and “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” all get prominent placement. There’s enough darkness and brooding there that the lighter fare (by comparison), such as “Pop Song 89” and “Finest Worksong” offer momentary relief, welcome faces in a prolonged purging of the soul.
Whatever the forces were driving the quartet as well as auxiliary players Scott McCaughey and Nathan December, they were working full throttle on that particular night. It’s curious to note that four years later, when a slightly different version of the group returned (Berry had by then retired and December was out of the ranks), material from Monster still loomed large in the set. A 21-tune set from Glastonbury on June 25, 1999 brings back “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” as well as “Tongue,” “Crush With Eyeliner” and “Star 69” amid then-newer pieces such as “Lotus” and “At My Most Beautiful.” The band doesn’t kick with the same intensity by that time. There’s something polished, professional and satisfied compared to the leaner, hungrier lads on the ’95 discs.
One can still love the performances: “The One I Love” whirls by with perfunctory speed while “Everybody Hurts” is rendered with newness and sincerity; “Finest Worksong” is imperfect but more intriguing for its flaws (imagine R.E.M. playing a dive bar with a blown P.A. and you’re halfway there).
The final audio set, a 2004 performance from St. James’ Church in London, is a marriage of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s vibe of the group and its latter-day self, somewhere between the band that charmed the world with acoustic-minded numbers that were hummable but darker than you might think and the one that had become part of the establishment, enough so that maybe some forgot to pay attention. There’s a moving take on “Boy in the Well,” a guest appearance from Thom Yorke on “E-Bow the Letter” and just two of the major hits (“Man on the Moon,” “Losing My Religion”). It’s the sound of a group that had grown weary, what might have become of Led Zeppelin had it survived into the early 1980s with John Bonham still around but with diminished creative powers.
Doubtless, there are those who argue otherwise and insist that R.E.M. never lost its shine, but a 1984 performance from Rock City in Nottingham argues otherwise. Even with thin production, one cannot deny the sheer power of “Second Guessing,” “Talk About the Passion” and “Driver 8.” The polish hadn’t set in and the quartet would write better songs, but the energy and excitement remains undeniable, a powerful snapshot of what made listeners sit up and take notice in the first place.
A ninth disc, a DVD, will excite collectors via the BBC documentary Accelerating Backwards, featuring the group’s evolution with the network and available commercially for the first time, and an R.E.M.-centric “Later…With Jools Holland” appearance from 1998 alongside clips from “Top of the Pops” and more. (And, yes, there are detailed liner notes.)
Non-obsessives can get by a with a lean two-disc best-of that still gives a detailed overview. But certainly anyone who owns more than five R.E.M. albums or anyone who stuck with the group after 1994 will want to dive into this box.