Let’s say you’re part of one of the most hotly sought-after bands in the world. You’ve developed a distinctive style that’s set you apart from most of your peers since day one. You’ve put out five basically flawless albums out in five years, eventually earning yourself a U.S. Top 10 hit and exposure on MTV. And now, a major label wants to sign you.
What do you do?
The way R.E.M. answered this question on Green, their sixth album and first of many for Warner Bros. Records, is perhaps a gold standard of how well this question can be answered. Bands in this position often walk a fine line between critical darling and sellout based simply on how they go about their first major-label project. (Consider Green Day’s successful Dookie, full of polished pop moments that expanded their cultural cache while alienating much of their existing core fan base.) Green, by contrast, makes just the right amount of tweaks that come not from an A&R meeting but from the hearts and minds of a ridiculously great rock quartet – and the recently-released 25th anniversary expansion of the album (Warner Bros. R2 535408) does a good job of underlining this fact.
While frontman Michael Stipe reportedly told his bandmates not to write any R.E.M.-type songs for Green, some of Green probably could have fit anywhere on the band’s I.R.S. Records discography. The band’s tendency for simple, singable, muscular rock (produced once again by Scott Litt, who collaborated with the band on Document and would be the band’s go-to producer until 1996) is evident on tracks like “Get Up” and “Orange Crush,” while fellow singles “Stand” and “Pop Song 89” are catchy winks at the band’s newfound major-label darling status, boasting some of the band’s most intentionally facile lyrics.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ve got a very diverse set of songs, anticipating the kind of multifaceted, often heart-tugging beauty R.E.M. mastered throughout the next decade. “The Wrong Child” and “You Are the Everything” are anchored around mandolin lines, while “World Leader Pretend” anticipates future ballads with its tender interplay between acoustic guitars and piano. Even the more traditional rock stuff sometimes aims a little to the left of center, veering away from Peter Buck’s typically jangly riffs in favor of slightly crunchier ones (“I Remember California,” the untitled closing track). Green‘s position as “pivot” on the R.E.M. discography may not make it as effortless as the five LPs that preceded it, but it’s still pretty darn good.
With Rhino handling the reins for R.E.M.’s 25th anniversary reissue series (UMe handling Murmur (1983) and Reckoning (1984) and EMI having covered Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) and Document (1987)), fans certainly must be curious as to how Green stacks up against its predecessors on the reissue scale. Packaging is fairly similar to EMI’s handiwork, with the Green sleeve replicated on an oversize case that opens, lid-style, from one end. Inside are individual CD wallets for the remastered album and bonus disc, as well as sturdy, framable shots of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry, a large fold-out poster and a liner notes booklet.
As with most of the 25th anniversary bonus discs, a live show is paired with Green – this time a show from the Greensboro, NC Coliseum in November 1989. Like the bonus disc that accompanied Document, the show isn’t complete on disc (though a Record Store Day-exclusive EP last month issued a portion of the missing tracks). But that’s not what makes this bonus disc just alright, instead of essential. As the live video Tourfilm showed, the Green tour was visually arresting – something you’re obviously not getting on CD. And the band’s sound was getting expansive enough to make it harder to nail the new tracks with the same sort of emotional heft as just a four-piece. (Tellingly, the band took a five-year hiatus from the road, after which they came back as a slightly extended lineup.) In spite of these drawbacks, the set is appropriately representative of where the band was at the time – and it’s thus pretty neat to hear audiences react strongly to both the new songs and the band’s back catalogue.
Even taking into account its pop crossover success, Green may not be the perfect starter for the new R.E.M. fan. But it’s certainly worth a reappraisal in the grander scheme of R.E.M.’s sterling discography – and this new set is surely as good a means of reintroduction as they come.