Wherein Michael Stipe realizes that people clap harder for “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” than any other song from Reckoning; wherein the band realizes that writing great hits was a lot easier than writing great albums; the start of the end. That being said, the singles – “Finest Worksong,” “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and “The One I Love” – are great; worth the price of admission of the entire album / any of their compilations albums that probably contain all three.
Unlike albums to come like 1994’s Monster or 2008’s Accelerate, “Finest Worksong” doesn’t sound huge … it is huge, and proof of this is when Mike Mills’ bass comes along on the second verse and you realize it was absent before that, that up until that point, it was all Peter Buck’s guitar filling the space. Hearing Michael Stipe “THE FINEST HO-OU-UR” is a memorable hook by itself, but hearing backing vocals lead it as on the second chorus onwards is even better. “The One I Love” is the second best, giving the band their biggest hit at that time, with Michael Stipe wailing “FIAAHHHHHHH!!!” as if there was really one in the vicinity while again, Peter Buck and Mike Mills provide a muscular musical backbone.
And though I had originally thought “It’s the End of the World As We Know (And I Feel Fine)” was nothing but dumb fun, I now think it’s simply fun, and what really differentiates the two is the counterpoint during the chorus, the backing vocals that either do the title’s words or later, “It’s time I had some time alone,” which might be the album’s greatest/smartest lyric, hidden under everything else that’s happening; the last time they bothered hiding anything at all. And there’s something smile-worthy about how many times this song popped up on various social networking sites right before the Mayan-prophesized end of the world (which, if you actually cared enough to read about it, was proved to be a complete hoax long before anyway; they simply died before they could continue making calendars after 2012. But hey, not that I need a reason to drink, smoke and be merry, but “The world’s not over!” is probably one of the better reasons I’ve come across to do those things).
After that? Mike Mills is damn near trying to drive “Welcome to the Occupation” to its “LISTEN TO ME!” climax and “Exhuming McCarthy” by himself (Mike Mills phones in his part for the former). “Disturbance at the Heron House”‘s hook is obvious than the other songs and the only one that would’ve fit on R.E.M.’s preceding albums without feeling misplaced. And whereas Lifes Rich Pageant’s “Superman” improved on the original, closed that album with a love song to remind us that R.E.M. were never a political band and might have been the best song on that album, their cover of Wire’s “Strange” reeks of filler. Once you get over Michael Stipe’s unbearably nasally whine, it’s nothing more than a silly rock ‘n’ roll ditty complete with a piano glissando to introduce, whereas the original featured backing vocals and a coda to justify its title. I suppose Michael Stipe decides to hit a slightly higher note at the end of every note should be commended, but that’s really not enough.
And “The One I Love” aside, the second side flat out sucks. That exact same whine of “Strange” almost ruins “Lightnin’ Hopkins,” whose funk-based and fast-paced energy might’ve saved the second side. The is the last time Bill Berry ever sounded like a human being on drums (dig that ping at the 2:20 mark), and otherwise, a decent wordless vocal hook. On the other three tracks, there’s really nothing else going on after you get past the saxophone solo, use of dulcimer and feedback experimentation of “Fireplace,” “King of Birds” and “Oddfellows Local 151,” respectively. But at least they’re trying; it’s more than I can say for a lot of the albums that would come after.