Funny thing – up until the 25th year anniversary reissue of last year, I had no idea this was an album, let alone R.E.M.’s major record debut; I always assumed this was a collection of rarities. That’s what happens when you name an album with something as creative as Green and give it a cover as drab as this one. Seriously, every R.E.M. cover from their debut EP through to the preceding Document was more interesting. ”Oh, I get it! It’s called Green, but the cover is orange, how clever!” Fuck off. What they would do for a follow-up also failed on all aesthetic accounts.
On Green, Pitchfork’s Stephen M. Deusner lends that, “[It] is an album of experiments. Freed from their usual roles, the band members tinkered with sugary pop, martial arena punk, fluttering folk rock, country flourishes, and dramatic dirges,” I don’t hear it. Or more specifically, I don’t hear how that description distinguishes Green from any other preceding R.E.M. album. Sugary pop? Help yourself to some “Superman,” “It’s The End of the World,” or “The One I Love.” Martial arena punk? Help yourself to some “Strange” or better yet, “Radio Free Europe.” Country flourishes? Help yourself to some “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.” Dramatic dirges? Help yourself to the closing stretch of Document, which might not been successful to these ears, but were certainly more experimental. And I’m pretty sure “fluttering folk rock” defines everything up until Document, so no points there.
So yeah, major record debut – and a successful one at that (their first to go double platinum, their first to make a mark overseas). You know what reallyscreams “major record?” Forcing Michael Stipe’s vocals to the forefront like never before; listen to him yell out “BUT IT’S OKAY! OKAY!” on “The Wrong Child,” when really, it’s anything but. “Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing” would’ve been a lot more truthful if Michael Stipe did the Michael Stipe thing and murmured his lyrics. You know what really screams “major record?” Backing vocals everywhere. No shit, every one of these songs has those things, while sometimes they help make it a standout (“Get Up”), most of the time, they feel like they’re doing the same thing the gospel choir did for Bob Dylan on Saved, mercilessly repeating every line (“11”). You know what really screams “major record?” Bridges and solos everywhere. No shit, every one of these songs has those things, and most of them are useless. The airy new wave chimes in “Get Up?” Not nearly long enough to be atmospheric or even interesting – it’s just sort of there. The wah-wah solo in “Stand?” I don’t think I could have expected a less emotive solo from a once emotionally-resonating band. You know whatreally screams “major record?” Remaking the Doors’ “Hello I Love You” (“Pop Song 89”), which I was never much a fan of, which itself was a remake of an early Kinks song (read: an uninteresting Kinks song), which I was never much a fan of.
There are no good songs on Green, but in its defense, it does have moments. “Pop Song 89” does have the “Let’s talk about the weather / Let’s talk about the government” lines that are the only worthwhile part of it, even though that’s about as political as that song and the album as a whole gets. I wasn’t there at the time, and Canadian high school history classes didn’t go into it because it’s not part of Canadian history, so I only know the gist of why Ronald Reagan gets so much flak, so why don’t you tell me instead of vaguely muse about it? The backing vocals of “Get Up” are made even catchier because they’re running parallel to a biting guitar and handclaps. “Stand” is easily the album’s most anthemic number, though I don’t think it holds a candle to like-minded songs from Document. Despite having some really Godawful lyrics that promote a life disconnected from the outside world, “The Wrong Child” has a really gorgeous bridge (starting at the 1:44 mark) using a trifecta of mandolins, keys and strings. Similarly, “Orange Crush” has a good one too (starting at the 2:10) featuring what sounds like teleprompters and helicopters that create a tremendous sense of urgency – good hook, too. Hearing a mandolin for the first time on “You Are the Everything” (great title, but hearing “You’re drifting off to sleep / With your teeth in your mouth” just reminds me of why Michael Stipe was better off hiding his lyrics) was nice, but hearing Peter Buck strum it in the same way on “Wrong Child” and “Hairshirt” is lazy – like the guy couldn’t bothered to fingerpick arpeggios on a guitar like he used to. Elton John ballads that used that instrument often used it to color in empty spaces, not carry entire songs. Finally, there are brief measures full using a pretty organ hook dispersed throughout “11” that are a welcome reprieve from the vocal overload.
Their worst album at this point in time; the second side (barring the already talked about “Orange Crush”) isn’t worth talking about, but I have to ask why Bill Berry sounds like a drum machine on “Turn You Inside-Out.” I know plenty of people in real life or ‘round parts like these who believe R.E.M. to be a boring band and Green must be what those people think of when they think of the band – an album without the mystery of R.E.M.’s indie years or without the huge successes of some of the stuff to come. In other words, an album without much of anything at all.