R.E.M – ” Document ” Classic Albums

Posted: September 2, 2018 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Document

R.E.M’s second album, 1984’s Reckoning, carried a curious phrase on the LP’s spine: “File Under Water.” It was a designation, an in-joke or even an alternate title that referenced the running theme of water in the album’s lyrics, from “Seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean” to “These rivers of suggestion are driving me away.”

When R.E.M. released their first best-of collection, 1988’s Eponymous, the compilation had a different designation: “File Under Grain.” This time, it was a reference to the wheat field cover art as well as the subject matter of the LP’s lone single, “Talk About the Passion,” which was about hunger.

A few years, and albums, after Reckoning, and about a year before Eponymous hit stores, R.E.M. repeated this exercise. Lead singer and primary lyricist Micheal Stipe had noticed that many of the songs that made up the band’s fifth studio album, “Document” featured fire from burning coals in “Exhuming McCarthy” and fiery destruction in “Welcome To The Occupation” to a firehouse in “Oddfellows Local 151” and a literal chorus of “Fire!” in “The One I Love” When released in the summer of 1987, Document had “File Under Fire” inscribed on its spine.

R.E.M. has just finished a tour of Europe and North America, playing to the largest crowds of the group’s career so far. They are on the cover of the Rolling Stone, underscored with the declaration “America’s Best Band.” Their latest album,Document, is fast approaching platinum sales in the U.S. And they have a Top 10 hit. Most bands would be thrilled, ready to forge ahead with declarations of continued greatness . But the guys in R.E.M., bandmates for seven years, were more surprised by their quantum leap in popularity, maybe even shocked by it, and definitely skeptical.

For R.E.M., 1986 had been a pivotal year. The band’s fourth album, the brash, yet highly accessible Lifes Rich Pageant had rewarded them with their first gold disc, while their extensive Pageantry tour of the US had garnered considerable critical acclaim. As 1987 rolled around, confidence was at a high within the R.E.M. camp. The Athens, Georgia, quartet had already worked up a clutch of promising new songs for what would become their fifth album, Document, and they had completed a successful initial studio session with new producer Scott Litt prior to Christmas ’86.

Litt had already assembled an impressive CV. He began his career as a studio engineer during the late 70s, working on recordings by artists as diverse as Carly Simon and Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter. He debuted as a producer in 1982 with The dB’s Repercussion album, a record R.E.M. were already familiar with, having shared stages with the band. In fact, the two groups’ histories would continue to intertwine when The dB’s co-frontman, Peter Holsapple, later joined R.E.M. as their fifth member on the Green tour and then played on Out Of Time.

R.E.M. and Litt began their fruitful, decade-long partnership with the successful recording of the quirky ‘Romance’. Though intended for the soundtrack of the film Made In Heaven, the song also later featured on the rarities compilation Eponymous. Litt reconvened with the band at their regular demo studio – John Keane in Athens – for an extensive demo session, before R.E.M. took a break and briefly embarked on extracurricular activities, including some studio contributions to Warren Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene album.

The band were back in the harness with their new producer at the end of March, with all of April ’87 given over to the recording of Document at Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. Several of the songs had already been worked up onstage, and the band’s keen pre-production work paid dividends: for Document, R.E.M and Scott Litt captured the sound of a rock band at the absolute top of their game, capable of taking on all comers.

The accessibility that seeped from Lifes Rich Pageant’s every pore was again apparent, but this time round the band had taken things up a gear. Indeed, the R.E.M. of Document was a sinewy, muscular rock beast, primed and ready to dominate the airwaves. Peter Buck’s distinctive jangle and chime was still apparent on ‘Disturbance At The Heron House’ and ‘Welcome To The Occupation’, but, for the most part, his guitar playing took on a sharp, steely quality. Accordingly, he turned in some of his most memorable recorded performances: launching ‘Finest Worksong’ with urgent, metallic riffs; embroidering the swampy funk of ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins’ with Andy Gill-esque tension and atonality; and punctuating the band’s supercharged cover of Wire’s ‘Strange’ with a neat, Nuggets-style psych-pop solo.

Meanwhile, the newfound confidence and vocal clarity Michael Stipe proffered on Lifes Rich Pageant continued apace, and on Document he summoned up a clutch of startling performances: bending and twisting his voice like an old time preacher around ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins’ and rattling off a rapid-fire alternate history of the 20th Century on the exhilarating ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’.

Lyrically, the socio-political concerns Stipe addressed on Lifes Rich Pageant again loomed large. Featuring barbed observations such as “Listen to the Congress where we propagate confusion/Primitive and wild, fire on the hemisphere below,” ‘Welcome To The Occupation’ was widely reputed to be a commentary on American intervention in South America. The deceptively infectious ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ also delved into political hypocrisy, drawing a parallel between the communist-baiting of the Joe McCarthy era of 50s American politics and the recent Iran-Contra affair during which senior politicians under President Ronald Reagan had secretly facilitated the sales of arms to Iran: a country which was then under an arms embargo.

Sonically, Document also afforded the band the chance to further broaden their palette. Special guest, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, added his distinctive saxophone skills to ‘Fireplace’, while lap steel and dulcimer coloured the hypnotic, raga-like ‘King Of Birds’. From their earliest days recording Murmur with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, R.E.M. had always relished the opportunity to try out different sounds and textures – and experimental approach that would continue through Green and Out Of Time, wherein the band members often swapped instruments and fashioned new songs from riffs and melodies worked up on acoustic instruments such as mandolins and accordions.

The spine of the artwork for R.E.M.’s second album, Reckoning, had featured the message ‘File Under Water’ and the original sleeve design for Document included another elemental phrase, ‘File Under Fire’. Michael Stipe considered fire to be one of the record’s central lyrical themes, with the album also including the song ‘Fireplace’ and the eerie, religion-related ‘Oddfellow’s Local 151’, on which the chorus consisted of Stipe repeatedly keening the word “Firehouse!” Document’s savage break-out single ‘The One I Love’ again included a chorus wherein Stipe sang “Fire!”, and while this emotionally vicious song itself was actually the very antithesis of a traditional love song, it still provided R.E.M. with their first major US hit single when it peaked at No.9 singles chart.

The second song on side two, “Fireplace.” Like the song that preceded it on the album, “The One I Love,” the track both contained a connection to fire and the use of repetition by Stipe. Where “The One I Love” replicated the same verse three times, but switched out a word in the last reiteration to emphasize a nasty cycle (“A simple prop” became “Another prop”), “Fireplace” changed the last line of its chorus each time, in an effort to depict escalation.

The first time around, the floor is cleared to “sweep the rug into the fireplace.” Next time, they “sweep the floor into the fireplace.” Before long, it’s “throw the chairs into the fireplace” and then, finally, “throw the walls into the fireplace.” What begins with, seemingly, the burning of dust and crumbs ends with the destruction of the structure that the fireplace is meant to make habitable. Fire and brimstone, indeed.

As it turns out, “Fireplace” has a significant religious connection. According to many R.E.M. biographies, Stipe’s lyrical inspiration for the song was a speech given in the eighteenth century by Mother Ann Lee, the leader of the first American chapter of the Shakers. Before she became known as Mother Ann, Lee joined this religious sect – also known as the Shakin’ Quakers because of their dancing method of worship – in her native England, where she was persecuted for her beliefs.

Despite the Shakers’ extreme reaction to a civilization that they felt was out of control (perhaps reflected in Stipe’s recitation of “Crazy, crazy world / Crazy, crazy times”), the sect is mostly known today for their simple, strong craftsmanship of furniture and for their love of dancing and movement as a method of worship. Each shaker home had hooks mounted on the wall, on which their chairs could be hung. This would allow for a strict cleaning of the floor, as well as make room for dancing.

Both of these elements are represented in the chorus of the R.E.M. song: “Hang up your chairs to better sweep / Clear the floor to dance.” Eventually, of course, everything including the floor, chairs and walls ends up in the fireplace. Given the other political content on Document, it’s likely that Stipe was making some sort of modern connection to Mother Ann Lee. “Fireplace” could be a cautionary tale, that righteous anger of any kind can slowly consume the structures that are necessary.

Stipe’s cryptic lyrics and matched by the strange, sharp instrumentation, which includes an off-kilter beat from drummer Bill Berry. “Fireplace” a “hard-rock waltz with a modal, hypnotic riff.” Peter Buck, the guitarist responsible for the riff, explained that R.E.M. was hoping for weirder results when making Document.

“This time around we wanted to make a tougher-edged record,” Buck reported .Its predecessor “Lifes Rich Pageant”. This time we wanted to make a loose, weird, semi-live-in-the-studio album. We wanted to have a little tougher stance. Part of the loose, weird approach was provided by saxophonist Steve Berlin, most famous as a member of Los Lobos – although he also worked with the Replacements, the Go-Go’s and Faith No More. Co-producer Scott Litt had previously teamed with Berlin and brought him near the end of the Document sessions. His midnight sax took the place of a typical Buck guitar solo, lending “Fireplace” a jazzy edge, as it finished off the song in an explosion of freewheeling bebop honking. Never before had an outside musician been given such a prominent role on an R.E.M. LP.

“That one was obviously a big one, because R.E.M. were pretty huge, said Berlin  “I was a little nervous going into that field, but it was a lot of fun. Even though they’d been successful, they were still experimenting. They were having a lot of fun making that record. The vibe in that room was they were really having a great time. They were happy with the way they were sounding and how the record was going and the way the world was receiving them. It was just a real honor to be a part of it.”

The guys in R.E.M. must not have thought that “Fireplace” was much good without Berlin’s presence. The band only performed the song 10 times in concert in their entire career, the final instance coming in 1989. “Fireplace” remains a stranger, lesser-known entry in the R.E.M. canon, although – as with the Shakers – the workmanship is rock solid.

Document followed through on the success of ‘The One I Love’, peaking at an impressive No.10 in September 1987. The band’s heavy touring schedule across the past five years now yielded far greater dividends as Document proved to be a hit in numerous territories, peaking at No.28 in the UK (where it also went gold), No.17 in New Zealand and No.13 in Canada, where it earned a platinum disc for the band.

The press agreed en masse that R.E.M. had again conjured up something special with Document. Always one of rock’s most insightful writers, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke was impressed by Stipe’s continued prowess as a frontman (“His vocals, which are upfront in the mix, are as crisp and distinct as they’ve ever been, full of emotional portent and physical insistence”) before he cogently summed up his review with: “Document is the sound of R.E.M. on the move, the roar of a band that prides itself on the measure of achievement and the element of surprise.” Elsewhere, New York Times critic Robert Christgau weighed in with, “Their commercial breakthrough eschews escapism without surrendering structural obliqueness,” and the Los Angeles Times praised: “A tougher, meaner, leaner album than its immediate predecessors, with a far more hard-edged guitar sound and tenser rock rhythms.”

The group filmed promotional videos for Document’s spearhead singles, ‘The One I Love’ (directed by New York artist Robert Longo) and ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (But I Feel Fine)’, for which R.E.M. turned to their long-term friend Jim Herbert, also the director of photography for the rock documentary Athens Georgia Inside-Out. In readiness for their next bout of touring, the band embarked on a series of interviews, including one with Rolling Stone, wherein Peter Buck cautiously stated: “I don’t see this as the record that’s going to blast apart the chart.”

From the onset of the band’s European tour, however, it was clear that R.E.M. were indeed ready to sell a large number of records and slough off the shackles of cultdom for good. The band’s Work tour kicked off with a rapturously received show at one of London’s premier indoor venues, the Hammersmith Odeon, and continued with the band playing to packed houses in The Netherlands, Germany and at La Cigale in the French capital, Paris.

Taking 10,000 Maniacs (and, later, The dB’s) along as their support, R.E.M. launched into the American leg of their Work tour with a show at the University Of Tennessee in Knoxville, on 1st October, and traversed North America and Canada until the end of November, playing around 45 shows in all. Along the way, they performed some of their most prestigious gigs to date, including a two-night stand at one of their favourite stamping grounds, New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

Document was a massive turning point for R.E.M., filled with big hits and hard lessons. As the band’s final studio LP with I.R.S. Records, it marked the ending of the band’s underground years – as R.E.M. would jump to Warner Bros. the following year and become an act that could fill arenas. But it was also the beginning of a new era, a fruitful studio partnership with Scott Litt resulting in a bevy of blockbuster albums and many more radio songs.

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