Document - surely people’s choice for most divisive I.R.S.-era R.E.M album. Some love it, some maybe only bought it on the strength of The One I Love, many no doubt rarely investigate it fully. It’s worth the price for the peaks it reaches, so a little lulling is forgivable.
It begins gloriously, with Finest Worksong - although give me the Mutual Drum Horn Mix that appears on Eponymous any day over the album version. Stipe’s call to arms is a hint of the growing confidence and politicisation in his lyrics: as traumatic as he might have found being deconstructed and reconstructed by Don Gehman during the recording of Lifes Rich Pageant without that process, would we have had such a rapid transformation from Fables… to this?
After what he went through to get to this point, you could forgive Stipe for throwing up his hands in exasperation at the response of some people to The One I Love. Latching casually onto the first R.E.M. song to include the word love in the title, and clearly not actually paying any attention to any part of the lyric beyond the repeated line this one goes out to the one I love, it was enough to fool passers-by into a terrible misunderstanding. Still, it took the song into the Top 10 in America, so as misunderstandings go, we’ve probably all had worse.
Elsewhere, Reaganomics is attacked on Exhuming McCarthy, South America is pleaded for on Welcome to the Occupation, and the apocalypse and a party where everyone seems to have the initials LB is dreamed about in It’s the End of the World as we Know it (and I Feel Fine). The last of these three is one hell of a way to finish one hell of a half of an album. “File under Fire”, as the album’s sleeve appositely said.
Top 10 single The One I Love is the first track on side two of Document. It’s a side that might well have underwhelmed new fans: after that single the going is harder than before. You do, however, get what might be the first true solo of the R.E.M canon. Granted, it doesn’t come from Peter Buck’s guitar, but he was never one for solos, and as he said in 2002:
My feeling is that if I want to hear a solo, I want to hear a sax player, who has ten minutes to do it.
Which is exactly what we get in Fireplace. Well, not exactly: mercifully it falls comfortably short of the full ten minutes, though I like to imagine that an extended 600 second sax version of the song is out there somewhere…
Then, Lightnin Hopkins’, which is shouty, and in the pile of ‘not often listened to R.E.M. songs, while King of Birds hints at later acoustic experimentation: it leads naturally into passages of Green, threads of which properly take wing in Out of Time.
Document was to be R.E.M.’s last studio album for I.R.S. before a much-exaggerated deal took them to Warner Bros, and the major leagues. Until now they’d managed to successfully navigate the tight-rope of authenticity with increasing mainstream success: would that change with major label backing?