After nearly three decades as a recording unit, we finally get a R.E.M. album you can understand the lyrics. It’s a bit sarcastic of course but the band, that defined college radio in the eighties and nineties, had a reputation for muddling lyrics. One might even say they had a tendency to “Murmur.“
Now comes a release that features the band at its artistic zenith and highlights one of their underrated strengths- lyric writing. Since the band retired in 2011, they have been flooding their fans with archival material much of which has been satisfying to the hardest of core fanatics but not as necessary for their run of the mill fans. Now comes one of the band’s most defining releases nearly three years after they called it quits- “Unplugged 1991/2001:The Complete Sessions.”
Even Michael Stipe himself, the reluctant vocal leader of a true band of equals, declared most of his early vocals as “nonsense;” however, here in songs like “So. Central Rain” and “Perfect Circle” they regain their poignancy. And even if their meaning is not clear it brings a sense of fond nostalgia back to the first time we heard these numbers. It also will make you chuckle at yourself when you realize “Oh that’s what they were singing, I thought it was something different.”
The MTV Unplugged format had its epic moments like Nirvana and Eric Clapton, but no band benefited from the sessions more than R.E.M., the only musical act to appear on the show twice. Hearing “Radio Song” in it’s rap free sorrow or getting choked up on the simplicity of “Belong,” only strengthens the band’s presence among one of the finest American acts ever.
This two CD set features over 30 songs almost half of which were never released before. There is also a delicious collectors set of 4 vinyls that I am going to assume sound incredible. (Even if I owed them I am not sure I would ever play it). However, most will choose the iTunes version and in this format that’s just fine, because it’s hard to diminish these performances.
The two sets work effectively as bookmarks on a storied career. For many R.E.M. is a demarcation point in music. When punk was losing its steam and we hadn’t meet Nirvana yet, R.E.M. emerged from the kudzu of sound to change the industry. They were an effective bridge to alternative rock while were seemingly slightly happier than their grunge counterparts. They taught hordes of future bands that they could buy in to the system without selling out.
It was independent music’s shining moment and R.E.M. was carrying the torch. This comes through in the profound 1991 session on this release. Leaning heavy on the album that catapulted them to mega selling status “Out Of Time,” it also assured their fans that it was still cool and ok to continue to like them. It captures the band at the stage where many others had disinigrated or fall apart. That crossroad in a career when it appears one must sacrifice integrity for record sales the real devil in rock and roll at the time. This appearance, however, laid all those concerns to rest.
The 2001 performance is more a farewell in nature though they didn’t act it. The songs rely on “Reveal,” one of he bands weaker moments, yet this performance ‘reveals’ much more depth to those songs and the inclusion of “Cuyahoga” and “So. Central Rain” make it pure bliss. This is a must for any rock fan or music lover who is seeking to become a song writer or just wants to revel in the glory of a band at its twin peaks.