The Acceptable Edge of the Unacceptable Evolves
R.E.M.’s Green at 30
Green, R.E.M.’s sixth LP and debut for Warner Bros. Records, found them at something of an artistic crossroads.
They began to swap instruments more frequently, and expand their sound palette to a near-baroque level, as would be more fully realized on Out of Time, while retaining some of the bombastic arena rock moves and rhythm section fireworks they’d superbly executed throughout Lifes Rich Pageant and Document. There was also the obvious double entendre of the title—Green as in money, given it being their major label debut, and Green as in ecology, as the band had by this point become well-recognized for being environmentally conscious, and this was likely a tongue-in-cheek reference to them being taken so seriously for it.
It was also the first of a few R.E.M. albums to feature a hit single utterly unrepresentative of the band’s sound and ethos—“Stand,” while a fine bubblegum pop song, isn’t one of their finest moments. It’s immortalized as the theme song of Chris Elliott’s cult favorite sad-sack Get a Life TV series—where it should’ve remained crystallized in amber. It’s not a defining or proud achievement for them, but it’s their take on The Archies and The Monkees, and it’s a great appropriation. But it isn’t R.E.M. playing to their strengths, or a song any hardcore R.E.M. fan would want played at their funeral. I wish we could erase it and start a new R.E.M. up.
The scarred heart and soul of the album lies in its experimental moments, on which the band broke some new stylistic ground. Michael Stipe’s performance on the “Wrong Child” dazzles, as he sings from the perspective of a disabled child (“tell me what it’s like to just go outside/I’ve never been/And I never will”) as a chiming, minor key mandolin driven melody courtesy of Peter Buck tastefully embellishes when it could’ve easily been the catalyst to a drift into cheaply maudlin territory, instead driving it into an ethereal dreamscape. But what’s most brilliant and devastating on the song is its coda, upon which Stipe sings exasperatedly, “I’m not supposed to be like this. But it’s ok. Ok?” It’s the pregnant pause between the oks that renders it so powerful, similar to pause on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” between the titular lyric and “again.” Ian Curtis’ lyric was obviously more autobiographical, but hinted that this was a pattern and not a phase, while Stipe’s pause between the “ok’s” is indicative of someone just clearly sick of platitude laden sympathy and perhaps wanting for empathy or just to be left the fuck alone. Space in music, or what’s not said or spelled out, is often as powerful as what’s included, a tool R.E.M. grew masterful at implementing as they evolved.
“Orange Crush” out-anthems “The One I Love” with its propulsive, machine gun groove courtesy of Mike Mills and Bill Berry, and Peter Buck’s signature jangle piercing through like a lightning strike. It’s not as didactic or strident as a U2 or Clash song, but gave plenty of clues as to it’s provenance—fervently anti-war and anti-imperialist—via lyrics such as “I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to serve your conscience overseas“ and “we are agents of the free,” while Stipe’s “be all that you can be” sardonic introduction of the song live was yet another stake he drove through the audience’s collective consciousness. It was more ham-fisted that most of R.E.M.’s political songs to that point, but that approach fit the song like a glove given the album’s production values, and really, the band’s stature at that phase—they were an arena rock band, and Stipe was swinging a megaphone onstage and raising his hands about his head and fitfully coming to terms with being a pop star. It was also obviously a reference to Agent Orange in the title, which likely indicates a degree of cognitive dissonance on Stipe’s part, given that his father served in Vietnam, where the chemical was used. Stipe was always circumspect regarding his personal life, and rarely spoke of his family, having said recently in an interview that his now deceased father was “a very complicated man.” But R.E.M. were never about facile reconciliations, as they posed us with questions without easy answers, or even answers at all.
“I Remember California” foreshadows “Electrolite” in Stipe’s fascination with Hollywood and its push/pull struggles with masculinity and blurring of genders, as Buck’s grinding guitar pulsations brashly underlines the tension attendant in the song’s sepulchral lyrical content, as “nearly was and almost rans” and “motor boys and girls with tans” are recalled in a catatonic hypnotic vocal by Stipe, before veering into the band’s environmental concerns via the drifting into an earthquake-driven apocalyptic dreamscape (“at the edge of the continent/at the end of the continent”) echoing the “it’s gonna fall/that’s what it’s there for” blithe pessimism hinted at on “Fall On Me.” Sure, R.E.M. recognized the inevitability of carrion, but they had a blast with it nonetheless, and always had a degree of hope in their songs, even when they tackled topics of grave seriousness.
“World Leader Pretend” was the first R.E.M. song to ever have its lyrics printed in its booklet, which wasn’t completely necessary, considering that they were very clear and audible in the mix, as Stipe was light years removed from his days of consonant dropping mumbles. But this reinforced just how damn good they were, and as Green was released on election day in the US, when yet another craven “world leader pretend” took office in a landslide victory, it was also very appropriate to have them emphasized. Stipe admitted that it was greatly inspired by Leonard Cohen, and one can draw a straight line to a Cohen song R.E.M. would later cover, “First We Take Manhattan,” in which the power drunk leader is “guided by the beauty of my weapons.” Stipe, on “World Leader Pretend,” assumes the role of a messiah experiencing a crisis of confidence attempting to justify his barbaric actions, finally coming to the realization that, “it’s high time I raze the walls that I’ve constructed.” It also rates with the rarified echelon of Cohen lyrically, and as with many R.E.M. songs, also suggests that the battle within is the first that must be won, as illustrated on the song’s opening line, “I sit at my table and wage war on myself/It seems like it’s all/It’s all for nothing.” There’s no judgment from Stipe, just a keenly perceptive sketch of a deeply flawed character in desperate search of approval, power, and attention, at any cost, and ultimately searches blindly for redemption, after being exposed as a weakened shell. Sound timely?
Green was also Stipe’s friend Kurt Cobain’s favorite R.E.M. album, at least prior to Automatic for the People, as his oft-published and cited top 50 albums list indicates. It was juxtaposed with more obvious choices including Black Flag The Wipers, The Pixies, Butthole Surfers, and The Beatles, and was a surprising choice, given that at that point. Green was widely viewed as one of R.E.M.’s lesser albums. But Cobain never seemed to care much what others thought of him, as a man who went on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball wearing a dress, and once said he was “gay in spirit,” particularly bold moves especially in the early ‘90s. The man liked the music he liked, even ABBA, without guilt. He never played the coolness sweepstakes, thankfully. And really, he emulated R.E.M. in that sense, and admittedly took cues from them both sonically and in how they conducted themselves. R.E.M. didn’t play with a rulebook, weren’t afraid to challenge their audience, and did whatever the hell they wanted to creatively, qualities desperately sought by Cobain with Nirvana, and ideals that eventually became known as “the R.E.M. model,” the blueprint for maintaining artistic integrity while navigating the pitfalls of an intrinsically corrupt corporate game.
There were missteps in R.E.M.’s career, but Green isn’t one of them. It capped off the ‘80s for the band triumphantly, before they’d go on to become one of the biggest acts in the world in the ‘90s, so it makes sense that it straddled the line between the semi-acoustic and mandolin driven direction that would bring them to that level, while also harking to their years of more conventional, arpeggiated guitar driven college rock. It’s also one of their least cohesive albums, and at times, can be maddening to describe. Oddly, a facetious, pithy quote given by Stipe after he was asked why the band signed to Warner Bros. is fairly appropriate for at least part of the album—his words were, “Bugs Bunny.”
Roughly 1/3 of Green, such as “Pop Song ’89,” “Get Up,” and “Stand” toy with caricature, cartoonish, self-aware takes on clichés and how to embrace them, ostensibly the “Bugs Bunny” moments. But Green is much more than this, tackling global issues of far greater import with erudition and gravitas, on another approximate subset, “Turn You Inside Out,” “Orange Crush” and “World Leader Pretend.” They had bluster, but are leavened by a disarming level of personal intimacy via Stipe’s lyrics. And the remainder, songs such as “Hairshirt” and “You Are the Everything,” connect on a very universal emotional level, and really, are the heart of the album, akin to the aforementioned and dissected “The Wrong Child,” songs that found the band taking its greatest risks thematically and creatively.
The closing 11th track, “Untitled” falls into something of a netherworld, suiting its “hidden track” placement, yet brilliantly captures the band’s elusive appeal. An elliptical letter to Stipe’s family and friends gently conveying his love for them, perhaps to combat the deterioration of relationships so common for bands due to the time and distance apart required by the nature of their craft, it’s jaunty, with a roller rink-ish keyboard melody undergirding the song’s pathos as he sings, “This world is big and so awake/I stayed up late to hear your voice.” But the lyric really could’ve been written by any R.E.M. fan about Stipe—we all stayed up late to be assured by his keening croon through our shitty CD boom boxes or on tape on long late night drives home.
It’s still welcome repose, and is missed, as are R.E.M., but the music remains, along with anniversaries upon which to celebrate and remember them. And revisiting them also encourages us not only to be unafraid in such dark and confusing times, but also to remember, as Stipe also sang on “Untitled,” how “this light is here to keep you warm.” The band’s light did keep us warm throughout their remarkable run of records made for the lonely and shy and awkward, the “island of misfit toys” kids, as Stipe once said, and also implored us to trust in something bigger than our fear, something ineluctable that they serendipitously stumbled upon—a divine alchemy the band themselves couldn’t articulate. Sure, they’re outta here now, but we’re not scared, even when perhaps we have every reason to be. We might not feel as fine or believe in anything as strongly as we did during their heyday, but it’s nice to be reminded of those times when we did, with a sobering realization that music can’t change the world. But maybe those who love it still can.
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