Due to a strange confluence of events, I was encouraged to wear black yesterday, for a "blackout" at a high school soccer match my wife's goddaughter was playing in, and because I don't have a whole lot of black in my wardrobe, I started looking through my drawers for a black t-shirt. I finally found one in the fifth drawer I looked in (I work at a high school; I have a lot of t-shirts); it was a shirt from the R.E.M. Green tour, a shirt passed on from a friend, and despite the large yellow image in the center, I put it on.
I felt a little like I was wearing Halloween. My wife thought from a distance that it was a Pittsburgh Pirates shirt in anticipation of tonight's game. But, it was just a last-ditch blackout shirt. As I walked out to my car, though, I thought, "Wait a second. I'm wearing R.E.M. Green. I have that CD. I haven't listened to it in a long, long, long time, but this feels like the time. It's synchronistic." That's how I think.
And that's what led me to today's reconsideration of Green. At the time, with R.E.M. coming off of a streak of what seemed like "important" records, like Life's Rich Pageant and Document, that were both redefining what "Southern" music could be and likely setting the stage for the Americana that would follow, Green was a slight, regressive, overly-commercial offering from a band who had more to say, even when I couldn't tell what that was.
Hit songs like "Pop Song '89," "Get Up," and "Stand" went farther down the popular path of "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" (probably not the actual title), without the lyrical intrigue. The "deep" songs like "World Leader Pretend" or "Orange Crush" relied even more on the lyrical repetition than earlier songs.
Green, to my 1988-89 ears, was not as much stripped down as dumbed down. To make matters worse, I saw the band on this tour, not in an intimate setting like The Grand Old Opry, where I'd seen the Life's Rich Pageant show, but in a basketball arena with swirling, booming acoustics and a lot more distance between me and the band. I was not impressed by where the band had gone.
So what happened during my re-listen yesterday? Well, if you're hoping for a revelatory, how-could-I-have-been-so-ignorant re-reading of a CD you probably liked more than I did 25 years ago, you are going to be disappointed. Still, I was surprised.
First, because those poppy little numbers were, by far, what I enjoyed the most. "Pop Song '89," ironic title and all, is just a damn good, tight, jaunty piece of musical craftsmanship, with neither a word nor a note wasted. "Shouldn't we talk about the weather? Shouldn't we talk about the government?" Is there a yearning there for something more? Indeed. "Stand?" "Get Up?" Those songs feel like old friends, friends that I want to sing along with. And did.
One of the other great pleasures of Green that I hear now is that it uses the backing and alternating vocals of bassist Mike Mills as a counterpoint to Michael Stipe more frequently and, perhaps, to greater effect, than any other R.E.M. CD.
The sadder realization was that I also think I hear in Green now the band's eventual dissolution, and, especially, the seeds of their unsuccessful later work. At the time, the more acoustic breaks from the rockers ("You Are The Everything," "The Wrong Child") seemed like necessary changes of pace, chances for Stipe to emote, instead of spout inane lyrics. But now, these strummer ballads sound largely tuneless and unnecessary, minor versions of more interesting previous acoustic numbers like "King Of Birds" or "Swan Swan H."
And "I Remember California" has to be the most morose offering the band ever released, a meandering electric drone of a song, maybe some kind of failed encounter with no insight. Just awful:
I remember traffic jams
Motor boys and girls with tans
Nearly was and almost rans
I remember this, this
Low ebb, high tide
The lowest ebb and highest tide
I guess we took us for a ride
I guess its just a gesture.
At the end of the continent
At the edge of the continent
And, finally, and someone, maybe the band, maybe the marketing director, I don't know how sequencing and such things work, but at a time when the hidden bonus track may already have been fully played out, R.E.M. and co. still decide to sneak in a chipper little tune that takes us right back to the start of the record. I didn't always get that far in.
Despite the underwhelming title, and the weaknesses I hear now in most of the last two thirds of the CD, "Song 11," this last song, can't help but leave me feeling good about the work that might come. And there were many more highs to come--Automatic For The People, Out Of Time, and especially New Adventures In Hi-Fi.