Written by Charles Weller
R.E.M.’s 1987 breakthrough album, Document, was what lifted them out of cult fame to mainstream success. Now, 25 years later, the album has been remastered and re-released to celebrate its success and the success it brought the band.
R.E.M. is known for their convoluted and mysterious lyrics, and this album does not stray from this expectation. Despite being true to their characteristic blurred themes, the middle of the album contains the most overtly political sentiments with “Welcome to the Occupation,” “Exhuming McCarthy,” and everyone’s favorite song to hear performed at a karaoke bar: “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” (That was a joke, don’t ever dare to choose that damned song). These songs highlight the defiance of the album as a whole, a reaction to the 1980’s conservative Reagan era in America. The band embodies a punk-rock attitude but with more sophisticated and melancholy music.
Although much of the recognizable R.E.M. sound seems to stem from Stipe’s vocals, it’s really Peter Buck’s guitar playing that sits at the helm of their music’s direction. From the simple melodic picking in “Welcome To The Occupation” to his electric (both literally and figuratively speaking) outbursts in the worst song, “Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Buck holds the power to define what each song is about. When it comes down to it, with this album, you’ve almost got to just forget the lyrics and listen to him do his thing. The best example of Buck’s control over the music is in “The One I Love,” the band’s first hit to reach the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and the culmination of Document. This song did not become R.E.M.’s first true hit single because of Stipe’s emotional vocal performance—though it fits perfectly—but rather with Buck’s ability to play the riff thatmakes Stipe’s voice exude passion. It is as if Buck’s guitar is a magnifier for the beauty in Stipe’s singing, exactly what great guitar playing should do.
The only real problem is Buck isn’t allowed to truly shine! “The One I Love” contains his best solo of the album and leaves us wanting a bit more, but they simply don’t give it to us. He’ll just have to remain an accompanying act, keeping the music afloat from below with his powerful riffs.
Fun Fact: On the song “Fireplace,” the saxophone is played by multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin of Los Lobos fame. He’s pretty incredible at whatever he’s playing, so go and check out some Los Lobos music if you know what’s good for you.
Key Tracks: “The One I Love,” “Finest Worksong,” “Disturbance At The Heron House”
RIYL: Sonic Youth, Hoodoo Gurus, Nirvana
Check “The One I Love” Out Here: