The Good: Some excellent writing, impressive vocals.
The Bad: Musically unimaginative on many of the tracks, Short.
The Basics: Near the end of their early career, Document seems limited when one knows where R.E.M. went later.
R.E.M.'s musical career has been sensibly broken down into two eras, by the band and the companies which have produced their music. The 1988 - 2004 latter collection was compilated on the first "Best of" R.E.M. album entitled In Time (reviewed here!) a few years back. Their earlier work, has appeared on the Best of The I.R.S. Years, 1982 - 1987 on an album entitled And I Feel Fine . . . out now. One of the last album from the I.R.S. years is Document, which was album that catapulted the band out of the college scene and into the mainstream with such radio friendly singles as "It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" and "The One I Love."
Document is an album that it's hard for me to go back to. Used to the quality and diversity of such albums as Automatic For The People (reviewed here!), which is pretty much a classic, and the strength of In Time, Document seems somewhat disappointing. In some ways, I suppose it's true you can't go back.
Document is notably different from the 1988+ years music that I have become accustomed to from R.E.M. in that it is quite underproduced by the band's later standards. There is no "E-Bow The Letter" or "Daysleeper" on Document. Instead, most of the tracks, starting with "Finest Worksong" and equally noticeable on "Exhuming McCarthy" are dominated by the drums. This quartet engages with drums, guitar, tambourine, bass and occasionally piano. But on Document, there are few other instruments and it gives the feel of the album a less impressive stance than some of their later works.
What works? The lyrics for starters. Document is a socially conscious rock album that is very much alive today. "Exhuming McCarthy," for example, is an anthem against government oppressiveness that is still relevant. And how many bands today use such diction as to sing "Vested interest united ties, landed gentry rationalize / Look who bought the myth, by jingo, buy America?" And while not necessarily lyrically complicated in terms of diction, one of the most impressive feats of rock and roll appears on Document. It's "It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." That popular radio hit is a nightmare to try to sing. Don't believe me? Try singing along with it! It doesn't matter how many times one hears it, it's a fast paced song that is astonishing in the speed it is presented at.
And the irony is that despite the success of the two singles that put R.E.M. on the map to the non-college crowd, the best song on Document is the slightly more obscure and esoteric "King of Birds." With its unique sound and easily recognizable lyrics, it's a winner. The thing is, it's not their most socially conscious or even most immortal song. Or maybe it's just that I'm a sucker for anything that sounds like a zither. But it is a great song.
Outside "King of Birds" and "Its the End of the World . . ." (which, by the way, the band spells wrong on the album, not me!), this is a pretty standard pop-rock album in terms of sound, a pretty standard political riot album in terms of lyrics. The result feels, well, like a band geared toward college-bound intellectuals throwing a bone to the masses. Not esoteric enough to be hoity-toity, not accessible enough for middle school students to enjoy.
What finally gets me to ultimately not recommend Document is its length. This is a disc that is translated from its cassette - and probably record - incarnation and it is short. While I'm easily more fond of the later works, I'm disappointed whenever artists do not put out as much as they can (within reasonable quality limits). Document could use more tracks or some of the tracks, like "Welcome To The Occupation" could be longer.
Who will like Document? People who were fans of R.E.M. before they made it huge with Out Of Time. People who were in college and heard these tracks on the college radio stations. People who want to hear "King of Birds" without shelling out for the two-disc version of And I Feel Fine . . . People like overtly political music and who love the United States but fear the government. Who is unlikely to get much out of Document? Those whose first love of R.E.M. came with Automatic For The People. The starkness of Document will leave those people disappointed.
The best song, impressive and ahead of its time on this album, is "King Of Birds." The worst track is "Strange."
For former Artist Of The Month selections, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Useless Trinkets - Eels
Opiate - Tool
Greatest Hits - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Check out how this album stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where the works are organized best to worst!
© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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