On Second Thought: R.E.M. – In Time: The Best of R.E.M (2003)

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When I originally picked up R.E.M.’s best of In Time: 1988-2003, a good overview of the group’s middle years of output, I was actually glad to see it for some of the soundtrack and “various artists” collection songs pulled together into this set. That made it worthwhile for all but the most die-hard of fans, those people who would have bought those soundtracks and oddities sets the songs were included on anyway.

The big complaint was, of course, that nothing pre-1988 (pre-Warner Bros., in other words) makes it way onto the set, but that’s what the “1988-2003” label means, you know? And that’s what Eponymous is for, anyway.

Taken out of the context of the various albums, the songs chosen here still stand up well. Outside of Monster, tracks like “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” don’t seem as shallow: Monster being a pretty regrettable entry in their catalog.

Of the two then-new songs, “Bad Day” still stands out because it’s obvious that it is nothing more than the sibling of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” — and you won’t be able to listen to it without expecting it to go into that memorable chorus. That it started out life as the inspiration way back when for “End of the World” comes as no surprise. “Animal,” the other new song on the disc (and it actually is new) harkened back to the hard-edged guitar jangle of R.E.M. in their prime. It’s also nice to get tracks like “The Great Beyond” and “All The Right Friends” in one place — both were previously relegated to soundtracks.

The bonus disc is comprised of various acoustic, live, demo, and b-side tracks. Not being the hard-core R.E.M fan, I can’t say whether this is a worthwhile investment for those who are, but the medium-core fan will probably enjoy this disc as much or more than the primary one.

It’s a little haphazard, jumping around from album-era to album-era, but taken as just a bunch of one-offs, it works quite well. The good moments include an acoustic version of “Pop Song ’89,” live versions of “Turn You Inside Out,” “Drive,” “The One I Love,” and “Country Feedback,” Monster outtake and one of the Batman movie soundtrack inclusions “Revolution,” Out Of Time outtakes “Fretless” and “It’s A Free World Baby” (whose exclusion from the proper album are questioned in the liner notes: yes, I ask, why did we have to get “Shiny Happy People” in place of either of these much stronger songs is a big question,) a new-vocal version of “Leave,” Plus there’s a humorous, intriguing take of “Star Me Kitten” with junkie-writer William S. Burroughs behind the mic.

Questionable moments include the necessity of demos for Reveal material: There weren’t any other live or b-sides that could have been included? The demos sound so similar to the finished product that there isn’t much reason for including them. “For die-hards only” moments are fairly rare, like “Chance (dub)” and the far-too-repetitive “2JN.” Like I said, I would have preferred a disc of live material, as a disc of disparate oddities of varying sound quality is a little haphazard sounding taken as an “album” itself.

Overall, though, it was a good deal. Had it not been for the bonus disc, I likely would not have fallen for it, but together it presents a prettier picture of R.E.M. in what most consider to be their “over the hill” days. I still appreciate the song selection for how well it flows together.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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