R.E.M.’s ‘Green’ boasted more ambition that it did cohesion, but so what?

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If 1987’s Document heralded the moment when R.E.M. started to get away from us, the follow up Green confirmed things: This wasn’t going to be our little secret anymore.

Still, for all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth among the college-radio hipsters (ahem!), Green was really more of a bridge between the two worlds than a destination. Sure, tracks like “Pop Song 89” and “Stand” received airplay on the big-stick stations, but the real supernova moment for R.E.M. was, of course, still to come.

For now, at least, those moments were tucked in with songs that still harkened back to the smaller, more personal albums that had made them underground darlings in the first place: Tracks like “World Leader Pretend” (filled, then as now, with this devastating lonesomeness), “The Wrong Child” (with its layered idiosyncracies) and “Remember California” (still such a gnarled moment of portent) could have fit in snugly with any of their celebrated I.R.S. efforts.

If there’s a complaint to be made about the album, decades after its Nov. 8, 1988 release, it’s not that they “sold out,” per se — because even chart-ready confections like “Stand” retain some of the band’s oddball sensibilities. (Check out that wah wah!) It’s that there are so many things going on, beyond the pop hits and the now-familiar jangly, mumbly hagiography of R.E.M., that Green never comes together into a cohesive whole.

Sprinkled in between are “Get Up,” “Orange Crush” and “Turn You Inside Out,” which presented the possibility of a flinty new direction for the group. They’d never before sounded so steely, propulsive, dangerous. But then there’s “You Are the Everything,” “Hairshirt” and the untitled 11th track. Each of them explores the kind of deeply emotional, intriguingly pastoral landscapes we’d come to expect from this group. Taken together, it’s difficult to piece together a cohesive statement of any kind — about where R.E.M. was as a band, or even where they were headed.

Was it a last look back? A genuine desire to build upon that foundation without leaving it behind? All of that would soon become obvious, though not just yet.

Something did become clearer on the subsequent tour, as featured on a 1989 show at Greensboro from 2013’s 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of the album. With a setlist dominated by new material — seven of that concert’s 21 songs are from Green — we received a prime opportunity to examine how they fit in next to older R.E.M. favorites like “Cuyahoga,” “Fall On Me” and “Begin the Begin.”

Oh, their new stuff more than held its own. Meaning, even if Green wasn’t the best album R.E.M. ever put out, this project nevertheless featured some of the band’s most durable individual songs. All that was changing was the way R.E.M. delivered them.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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