Review Summary: While deeply inconsistent and top-heavy, "Document" proves that a subpar IRS-era R.E.M. record is still pretty damn good.
R.E.M.’s final release for the independent label IRS, Document
mixes stadium-ready calls-to-arms, politically-charged refinements of their classic sound, timeless hits, and… some utterly bewildering artistic choices. The record is a front-loaded mixed bag, simplifying and boldening strides the band had taken on their previous record in some cases while veering off into grating pop or unwieldy slogs on others. Fortunately, a subpar IRS R.E.M. record is still pretty damn good, and Document
is accordingly worthwhile despite its flaws.
This is the first R.E.M. record where Michael Stipe clearly felt a burning need to use his pulpit to shed a clear light on specific political issues and injustices, and it’s reflected in the way he clears a great deal of the haze in his lyricism. “Welcome to the Occupation,” the closest song to Pageant
musically, targets American intervention in Latin America by sacrificing obscure language in the name of moral clarity. This directness has mixed results overall but serves Document
’s hits well. “It’s the End of the World as We Know it” barrels with apocalyptic urgency towards a cathartic chorus brilliantly counterpointed by Mike Mills’ “It’s time I had some time alone.” “The One I Love,” on the other hand, simplifies the R.E.M. template to its bare bones, driven by the ringing arpeggiated Dsus2 chord that would become a Buck trademark and a surprisingly creative drum part from Berry. Stipe’s vocals on both songs are superb, clearer than on any preceding record and showing remarkable range and depth. He also carries late-album standout “King of Birds,” a patient and moving descendent of Reckoning
’s “Time After Time” underpinned by sitar-esque strumming and a marching beat. These tracks are beloved for a reason, and represent the band refining and progressing their sound in anticipation of the larger venues that were clearly in their future.
is also the first deeply flawed record in the band’s discography. This album really marks the first time where R.E.M. sound, for lack of a better word, annoying. In stark contrast to some of his best performances and lyrics ever, some of these tracks see Stipe test the boundaries of tolerability. “Exhuming McCarthy” bouncily discards all subtlety, offering a well-meaning but juvenile critique of patriotism and American politics. Clever quips about coal-walking and realpolitik aside, this song is anchored by obvious references to McCarthyism and Bank of America that would get laughed out of a freshman protest. The cover of Wire’s “Strange” foreshadows Green’s pop songs, with Stipe’s voice bleating over a repetitive sing-song instrumental; unlike “Superman,” it presses further on already-grating sounds from the record instead of offering a cheerful counterbalance. Speaking of grating, the immediately off-putting “Lightnin’ Hopkins” is easily the worst song in the band’s IRS catalogue (including the drunk covers on Dead Letter Office), almost calling into question whether Stipe gaining confidence in his voice was a net positive. The difference between the album opener, a stadium (or factory) sized call-to-arms and the tedious dirge of a closer “Oddfellows Local 151,” summarizes the imbalance between the two sides of the record quite effectively as well.
Document has some classic tracks and a strong roster of deep cuts. Sadly, R.E.M.’s last independent effort is also their least impressive, simultaneously showcasing some of the best of what had come before and the worst of what was to come shortly afterwards.