Review of R.E.M.’s fifth and final album for the IRS indie label before signing to Warner Bros.
By Carter Bagley
R.E.M.’s fifth and final indie record ever before signing to Warner Bros. Records may be one of the best of their career. This album “Document” finally saw them completely encapsulating that arena rock sound they would later become famous for. At this time in their career the band was at the height of their talent, churning out phenomenal record after phenomenal record and each bringing in a new original sound. By 1987 they had already made a big name for themselves in the alternative rock community and were huge on college radio stations. The album opens up with the lively and confident “Finest Worksong”. Michael Stipe wails strong vocals and features lyrics that are more direct and cocky than on previous albums. The drumming by Bill Berry takes the song much higher and it features interesting instrumentation at certain points. The next song kinda feels like a part two to track 1 in my opinion although I probably like it more. “Welcome To The Occupation” is a phenomenal song and is always a song I return to more often than others. Great lyrics and vocals meet catchy instrumentation and this is definitely a track where you can hear the band grow and develop before your ears. The third song “Exhuming McCarthy” is an all-out catchy and fun song with nonsensical random lyrics much like previous efforts from the group. It’s when track 4 “Disturbance At The Heron House” begins that you really start to get into the record. It is a very, very underrated song from the band and begins with a simple guitar riff sounding a lot like one from “Murmur” and lyrics that the band couldn’t write until this point in their career. “Strange” is another exciting and energetic song much like “Exhuming McCarthy” and it balances out the energy of the record. With catchy pop hooks and competent lyrics it’s a fun tune but gets tiresome upon multiple listens. Track 6 and Track 7 however are two of the best singles in the band’s entire discography. The fast-paced, politically charged, confusing verses mixed in with the classic and memorable chorus demanded that “It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” was going to be a downright classic and obviously it turns out it was. After thousands of listens I still haven’t gotten tired of the song and every time it comes on I always end up singing along with Stipe’s contagious and explosive vocals. The beginning drums leading into the slow strumming and energetic lyrics that are almost nonsensical upon first examination but begin to expose themselves after multiple listens. It builds up and has incredible backing vocals and perfect compostion that made this track such a lasting pop song. This is no doubt a song that everybody needs to hear and in my opinion it is among the greatest alternative songs ever made. Although the song is now very well known and has had legs for the past 30 years, it was track 7 “The One I Love” that was the band’s biggest single at the time. It’s also a phenomenal song but has a more somber lovey vibe to it that the previous song didn’t. It was also fitting that this is the song that got the band more recognition too as it sounds much more like 80’s pop songs of that time than any other R.E.M. songs. Stipe gives a heart[wrenching vocal deliver and the lyrics seem to be more straight forward than other songs although I still feels there’s always been more to this love song than most will give it credit for. Despite “The One I Love” side 2 is genuinely not as solid as side 1 but that doesn’t stop it from being great alternative rock. “Fireplace” is a solid track for sure although doesn’t really add much to the record than what’s already been put in. “Lightnin’ Hopkins” is maybe the worst song on the entire record despite having catchy enough composition and backing vocals. Stipe’s delivery seems to just get kind of annoying after a while and it just lacks the skill the previous songs had. “King Of Birds” is definitely a high-point though on the record featuring simple instrumentation and vocals but it’s the lyrics that prove this song is great. Maybe the greatest songwriting “Document” has to offer as a whole and it also features a nice change of pace to the traditional guitar with a string instrument called a dulcimer played wonderfully by Peter Buck. Stipe’s vocals do shine at moments though especially at one point where he gets much louder. The final song “Oddfellows Local 151” is a different one but still very good. It ends the album in a similar spot where it began with bizarre lyrics and cocky yet unique instrumentation. All said and done “Document” has proved to be one of the groups best albums with amazing groundbreaking singles and a consistent tracklist. I also might add that the tracklist on other albums like “Murmur” and “Reckoning” may be better, I think the highs on “Document” are so high that it kind of evens out the records in terms of quality. This record also holds a dear spot in my heart because it’s the first album I heard from the band all the way through and also the first I purchased on vinyl. It holds up amazingly well all these years after its release and is no doubt a classic in the alternative rock genre.
Highlights: Welcome To The Occupation, Exhuming McCarthy, Disturbance At The Heron House, It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine), The One I Love, King Of Birds
Lowlights Lesser Highlights: Strange, Lightnin’ Hopkins