Review Summary: Pop Review '13
Having released five underground albums showcasing their unique mix of folk, rock and country, R.E.M. signed a record deal with Warner Bros that promised the band total creative freedom. Green, released in 1988, was the band’s major label debut and benefitted from the resulting increased record distribution, becoming R.E.M.’s best-selling album to date and their first to go platinum in the UK. Developing on the politically themed songs featured on Document, Green addresses many political issues such as the use of “agent orange” as a weapon during the Vietnam war; openly referring to the subject on the hit single "Orange Crush." Left wing politics also dominate the album’s packaging, with the album’s title referring to Green politics. Although orange packaging seems strange for an album of this title, staring at the cover and then closing one’s eyes causes a green image to appear. The seemingly meaningless feather-like cover art now makes sense and forms the texture of green grass; you’ll all be trying it later.
Green shows what bassist Mike Mills refers to as “the three facets of R.E.M.” “Kinda goofy,” Ironic pop songs like "Stand," “harder edged songs” such as the aforementioned "Orange Crush" and the “beautiful, wistful, mid-tempo ballad,” represented here by "You Are Everything" and "Hairshirt." Unlike on the album’s predecessors, Green’s mid tempo ballads prominently feature Peter Buck’s mandolin, which would form part of the signature R.E.M sound over the next two albums. The instrumental experimentation doesn’t stop there however, with accordion and piano providing perfect accompaniment in the stunning ballad "You Are Everything." Such experimentation provides a different feel to the “wistful mid-tempo” edge of R.E.M. heard on earlier tracks such as Murmur’s "Perfect Circle." The use of cello is also introduced in "World Leader Pretend," hinting at further use of strings which was realised on Out of Time and Automatic for the People.
For me, a highlight of the R.E.M. sound is Mike Mills’ superb backing vocals. Mills is arguably the finest backing vocalist in the history of rock and roll and doesn’t fail to impress on Green. The interplay between Stipe and Mills during "The Wrong Child" brings the song to life, passing phrases between the two voices gives the song a beautiful, eerie quality: “What do I do?” “What can I do?” “What should I do?” “What do I say?” Vocal harmonies in "Stand" and "I Remember California" make the choruses soar, taking them to a new level. With Stipe’s unmistakable vocals the centre-point of R.E.M.’s sound, Mills will remain their unsung hero, though I’m sure a remix of "Turn You Inside Out" with his vocals removed would prove his importance.
Green provides a stepping stone between cult underground status and the “biggest band in the world” status that R.E.M. would achieve with the huge commercial success of Out of Time and Automatic for the People. An experimental album in many aspects, Green lacks the cohesive feel of Lifes Rich Pageant or, to a lesser extent, Document. The balance of the album also lets it down somewhat, with the departure from the guitar-rock of the IRS releases; Green arrives at a more acoustic destination, a style later mastered on Out of Time. Unfortunately this change results in Green getting its wheels stuck in a mid-tempo mire which can lead to the album getting a little wearing. On previous albums there were fast paced, energetic songs like "I Believe" and "It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" which reset the balance of the more melancholy numbers; On Green, even the big singles "Orange Crush" and "Stand" plod along at a leisurely rate. After "The Wrong Child," the listener requires a faster number to redress the balance of the album, instead they get the hard-hitting "Orange Crush," with its message of horrible war crimes. As a result of this, by the time Green reaches "I Remember California," I can be found shouting “cheer up Michael, for god’s sake” at my stereo.
R.E.M.’s largest problem is of their own making. The sheer brilliance of some of their albums can make it hard for each one to appear stunning when delving through their massive back-catalogue. Green is an important album in many aspects, putting R.E.M. on the map in Europe and having an effect on the Grunge boom of the early 90’s, with Kurt Cobain placing Green amongst his list entitled “Top 50 by Nirvana." In isolation, this album would probably receive a higher rating; however, with masterpieces like Murmur and Document in my collection, I find it slides down the R.E.M. pecking order. Despite the album’s pacing problems, Green hones the R.E.M. formula for their first massive commercial success with Out of Time in 1991 and prepares the band for global stardom.