Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why This Version Of In Time Ought To Be Avoided . . .

The Good: Good songs, Decent lyrics, Generally good variety and music
The Bad: There is a vastly superior version of this album out there!
The Basics: In no way capturing all of the best of R.E.M. for this time period, there is a superior version that should be purchased instead of this one!

The more R.E.M. albums I listen to, the more surprised I am that I haven't taken the time to pan the single-disc version of In Time, The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 – 2003 before now. After all, this is an album that deserves a resounding pan and the sound of smacking the band upside the head with said pan is . . . well, it's just mean, but in this case it might well be worth it. In Time is available in two fashions: the blaze one-disc version and a vastly superior two-disc version (reviewed here!).

The difference in the two albums is simple: more music on the two-disc set. Additionally, the choice of discs is actually between the safe and known - the one-disc version is virtually all of the recognizable radio-played tracks by R.E.M., save "Shiny Happy People" - and those who appreciate having all of the known songs and growing to appreciate the group more, which is what the two-disc version offers. The one-disc version of In Time, though, is not the ultimate collection. It is expressly not "R.E.M. - The Singles." Notable singles missing from this album include "Drive," "Shiny Happy People" and "Star 69."

That said, this is one of the best albums I've heard in a long time. The one-disc version presents upbeat and offbeat songs I've heard for years, like "Man On The Moon" and "Losing My Religion" are mixed in with songs that continue to grow on me with each listen, like "The Great Beyond" and "Daysleeper." In fact, my familiarity with R.E.M. is largely from my listening to the radio and I was just blown away by hearing "Daysleeper." Sadly, mainstream radio stations were not well-known for playing any number of these songs.

With eighteen tracks clocking in well over an hour, the one-disc version of In Time is quite obviously the work of the band R.E.M. All of the tracks are written by the quartet-turned-trio and they play their own instruments and are often given co-production credits for these songs. This is their musical vision. And it's good. There are the recognizable songs like "Everybody Hurts" and "Stand" paired with new-to-many tracks like "E-Bow The Letter" and (shudder) "Animal."

Generally, one of R.E.M.'s true strengths is in their lyrics. "Daysleeper" is an excellent study of the range R.E.M. has. The strength of R.E.M. is in its poetic lyrics. "Daysleeper" is a song about a night worker who is tired all of the time and how that person sees the world. The poetry of "I cried the other night / I can't even say why / Fluorescent flat caffeine lights /It's furious balancing / I'm the screen, the blinding light / I'm the screen, I work at night / I see today with a newsprint fray / My night is colored headache grey / Don't wake me with so much. / The ocean machine is set to nine / I'll squeeze into heaven and valentine / My bed is pulling me, / Gravity" ("Daysleeper") is set to a sleepy, hazy melody that makes it instantly recognizable to anyone who has lived that way for a time. Moreover, how often are there tracks about something as simple as working through the night?!

And then there are songs that are just purely poetic that still make me scratch my head, like "E-Bow The Letter." After all, what does "Fields of poppies, little pearls / All the boys and all the / girls sweet-toothed / Each and every one a little scary / I said your name / I wore it like a badge of / teenage film stars / Hash bars, cherry mash / and tinfoil tiaras / Dreaming of Maria Callas / Whoever she is" ("E-Bow The Letter") actually mean?! Between that and "What's The Frequency Kenneth?" the listener has the potential of a lifetime of listening to try to decipher the meaning.

This is not to say that R.E.M. is simply about weird poetry without firm meaning. "Man On The Moon" is a tribute to Andy Kaufman and there are beautiful melancholy love songs like "Nightswimming" and "At my Most Beautiful." Indeed, how that latter track was never a huge hit for the band is a mystery to me. For those who have not been treated to it, it has beautiful lines like, "I read bad poetry / into your machine. / I save your messages / just to hear your voice. / You always listen carefully / to awkward rhymes. / You always say your name, / like I wouldn't know it's you, / at your most beautiful" ("At My Most Beautiful"). The group captures the simplicity and heartfelt quality of young relationships masterfully in that song and it truly is the perfect song to slow dance to. Damn our youth culture today for not gravitating to such a great song!

More than anything else, this best of album illustrates that R.E.M. is a pop-rock band that has maintained close ties to its alternative rock roots. R.E.M. is not afraid to sing about politics, artists and even simple absurdity ("Stand"). All the while they make it sound great and they make their topics relevant by infusing each of their songs with genuine emotion. "Daysleeper," for example, is sung with such longing and tired desperation that everyone can relate, not just those who have worked the night shift. Their classic "Everybody Hurts" perfectly characterizes the pain and sadness we have all experienced.

The only drawback is that the Best of album shows some of the limitations - musically - of a quartet, then trio, that uses primarily drums, guitar, piano and bass to make music. Vocally, the album mixes up quite well (mostly) the full range of Michael Stipe's musical ability, though it doesn't have any tracks where he goes as high as he does on some of the tracks on "Monster." Instead, songs like "Orange Crush" and "Losing My Religion" portray Stipe's mellow mid-range vocals.

The problem with Stipe's vocals has frequently been that he mumbles his way through the lyrics. Granted on songs like "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" the electric guitars overrun his vocals. Fine, but on songs like "E-Bow The Letter," "All The Right Friends" and "Electrolite," he just fails to enunciate well. It's a good gimmick; it encourages the listener to re-listen to the songs, even if they remain difficult to understand.

Musically, R.E.M. illustrates a seeming unending talent with the songs chosen for In Time. There are the electric, the experimental, the slow, the fast, the piano-driven, the electric guitar-driven, pretty much everything. Even on the one-disc version, there is enough to satisfy virtually anyone who loves pop-rock music.

The Best of R.E.M. is a perfect solution to the garbage that is currently on the airwaves. The lyrics are diverse, articulate and (generally) well presented. But there is a far better version of this album and those who want something new from R.E.M. are served best by picking the two-disc version up as opposed to this one. This is best for those who like what they have heard, but are fearful of more.

And, seriously, does the world truly need more of that type fan?

The best track is possibly "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" (it's a tough call, though!), the worst is easily "Animal."

For other R.E.M. albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Life’s Rich Pageant
Out Of Time
Automatic For The People
New Adventures In Hi-Fi
Around The Sun
. . . And I Feel Fine: The Best Of The I.R.S. Years


Check out how this album stacks up against the others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where the musical works are organized best to worst!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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