Having established themselves as a somewhat sleeker, cleaner, more strident rock band on Lifes Rich Pageant, R.E.M. exploded in a furious fireball on 1987’s breakthrough Document. Turbulent, chaotic and dark, the album broke the band into the Top 10 and into mainstream consciousness. Coming at a time when the airwaves were ruled by Bon Jovi, George Michael, and Madonna, Document surprised people who didn’t realize that alternative, “college” rock had been brewing so headily for years.
And speaking of fireballs, that is really the element that informs every note and beat of the album — fire. It shows up lyrically in several songs, and seems to be consuming Peter Buck’s guitar throughout. Listening to the album can be exhausting; the ideas come so fast, and the band rages so brilliantly, one can be excused for failing to note that many of the songs are in fact slow and edgy.
But that is exactly what gives Document such power: its guitars are heavy, but sounds nothing like, for example, Def Leppard; it’s uproarious, but each part seems to have been planned and executed carefully; and it’s varied and weird, but bears little resemblance to R.E.M.’s own Fables of the Reconstruction. The album has a unique sound — edgy but controlled, fierce but uncombative, and even the quieter moments shudder with restless energy.
R.E.M. — Document: Track-by-track review
1. “Finest Worksong”
Bang! Bill Berry’s single drum beat leads to what turns out to be the album’s main sound: Buck’s distorted, noisy guitar. Here, he plays a single, ringing note, feedbacking on itself, unsmilingly yanking the song forward.
Michael Stipe sings in his clearest voice yet, having written some of his most direct lyrics: “What we want and what we need have been confused.” Soaring effortlessly with the band, the vocals on “Finest Worksong” are inspired and inspriring, matching the power of the music note for note and featuring a beautiful background harmony from bassist Mike Mills.
This was the obvious choice to start the album, a loud, majestic concoction designed to wake up even the sleepiest ears, and introducing the concepts of change, social realities, and activism that would be explored more intricately on the rest of the album (and on future albums). Musically, R.E.M. is confident here; of attitude and motivation, they are uncompromising and driven.
2. “Welcome To The Occupation”
Over a darkly melodic tune, which features the usual R.E.M. minor chords sped up to double time, “Welcome to the Occupation” sheds the first track’s mayhem for a more subtle, focused point of view. While the band rocks with (slight) restraint, Stipe delivers an impassioned performance that refers to “fallen heroes,” “hang[ing] your freedom higher,” and standing up in the face of brutal oppression.
This song also features the one phrase that most succinctly sums up the album: “Fire on the hemisphere,” a striking, fearsome phrase whose ghost haunts Document as a whole. This, then, is the sound of a whole hemisphere on fire, a claustrophobic behemoth. “Welcome to the Occupation” is the album’s most successful merging of tunefulness and anger.
3. “Exhuming McCarthy”
The band takes a more poppy turn on “Exhuming McCarthy”, although by referencing disgraced, paranoid Senator Joe McCarthy, famous for leading the insane hunt for “Commies” in America in the 1940’s and 50’s, the band takes its most explicit stance yet against fascism and conservatism.
Starting off with the sound of an old manual typewriter, giving the song a kind of psychic connection to the album’s title, this track allows Buck to tone down the guitar chords and concentrate more on melodic passages that float along the top of a funky bass-and-drums break, sounding not unlike music from a 1950’s spy drama, or from R.E.M.’s own instrumental B-side “Rotary 10”.
One of the catchier songs on the album, the lyrics on “Exhuming McCarthy” are fun to sing along to, even if you choose to ignore their meaning. The song is structured well too, with a middle section featuring real audio of McCarthy being castigated on the floor of the senate towards the end of his unfortunate reign, and remains lively and danceable throughout.
4. “Disturbance At The Heron House”
Like a faster, crisper version of “Talk About the Passion” from Murmur, this is one of the songs on this album that don’t really rock per se, but are far more exciting and impressive than much of what traditional rawk bands were formulaically churning out.
Featuring a crazy, high-register guitar solo and extremely well-placed, pounding drums, “Disturbance At the Heron House” moves forward nonstop, providing a beautifully crafted framework into which Stipe adds a great set of lyrics about a group being unsettled by forces out of their control. In fact, Stipe was so proud of the lyrics, he allowed a magazine to publish them in 1987, something seemingly at odds with his concurrent disgust at the idea of putting lyric sheets in albums.
Without songs like this one, “King of Birds” and “Oddfellows Local 151”, Document would be perhaps too exhausting to listen to. These tracks, fortunately, serve to widen the album’s scope, to deepen its impact without dousing the fire that rages across the hemisphere.
Having been an occasional feature of the band’s live set during the Pageantry tour of 1986, this is a cover of a song by Wire. It fits so well on this album, though, that many would probably be surprised to find that it isn’t an R.E.M. original.
Though Stipe delivers the main vocal, several parts of the song are sung solely by a motley chorus-cum-party, giving this song more of a community feel. Having evolved into a band that, rock ‘n’ roll-wise, could do no wrong, R.E.M. uses this track as a great showcase for their musical unity and power.
6. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
The first of two major hits from Document, this one starts off with one of the most famous drum intros in rock history. The band and singer hit at the same time — “That’s great!” — and Stipe’s jumbled-up words tumble out a mile a minute, eventually turning into a lengthy monotone rant while the band two-chords it merrily underneath. This is actually a re-write of a Pageant outtake called “PSA”, which itself would be resurrected years later by the band and released as “Bad Day.”
While having no overt, direct point, the general impression is one of being surrounded by chaos, with lyrical references to earthquakes, hurricanes, and (again) fire emphasizing the maelstrom of the vocals. The frightening blitz of words only lets up during the wry choruses, where Stipe sings the song’s title with a curiously dispassionate pokerface, and the alternate background vocal offers the scale-descending “It’s time I had some time alone.”
The song everyone wants to sing along to but almost nobody can, there are a few moments that became favorites of the ever-growing crowds to shout out at R.E.M. shows, such as “I decline!” and, of course, “Leonard Bernstein.” This is the sound of a mature, experienced band, still taking chances, but overflowing with confidence and courage.
7. “The One I Love”
The breakout hit, catapulting the band into the Top 10 and, of course, being widely misunderstood as a conventional love song.
Document’s most effective use of its favorite element, and probably the most famous line of this song, is simply Michael Stipe’s long, wailing “Fire!!”. It comes during the most soaring, reaching vocal melody of the entire album, and skirts along the froth of Peter Buck’s famous, slicing guitar riff, a marriage made in heaven with a honeymoon in hell.
In a sort of metaphysical, and certainly unintended, way, the subsequent effect of the song’s opening lines upon the album’s release underscores a certain distracted, spoon-fed, intellectually disengaged segment of the society: People heard the first line, “This one goes out to the one I love” and classified the track as a love song, playing it at weddings and dedicating it to each other on radio call-in shows. But what about the brutal lines that follow?
This one goes out to the one I left behind:
A simple prop to occupy my time
Many didn’t catch that part, or didn’t take a few seconds to stop and think about it. It’s not that people were stupid necessarily, it’s just that such emotional honesty and vicious reality weren’t a part of popular music in 1987. There is nothing showy about Stipe’s devastating romantic dismissiveness, so most people missed it.
In the 20 years that have followed, the song has lost none of its impact, a testament to its greatness that not only allowed it to become popular upon its release, but has given it a status as a rock classic.
As the only song on Document that actually mentions “fire” in its title, “Fireplace” is actually a less rambunctious song than several others on the album. But this doesn’t diminish the sense of bewildering upheaval that runs throughout.
The key lines, repeated throughout, are “Crazy, crazy world / Crazy, crazy times”, and elsewhere the song seems to refer to the Shakers, an 18th century religious sect known (and ridiculed) for their wild, vibratory religious episodes and speaking in tongues.
In this, the lyrics recall the superstition and shamanistic rituals of Murmur. Sonically, the song features a saxophone solo, further adding the R.E.M.’s bag of tricks and managing to yet again infuse a song with menace and turmoil in a rather unexpected way.
9. “Lightnin’ Hopkins”
This is the tightest and in some ways wildest song on Document, if its most slight. Buck erupts with stinging, swirling electric guitar lines that refuse to stay moored to Berry and Mills’s staccato rhythmic undergrowth.
Stipe’s vocal delivery is extremely nasal, sounding nasty and pouting at the same time, and his lyrics are pure unhinged lunacy:
Hold onto your hat…
The wordlessly chanted chorus, sung in harmony by R.E.M.’s three singers (count Buck out), sounds like a tribal initiation ceremony deep in the woods. Fire makes an apperance here through impression rather than lyric: you can almost see and hear the crackling of the bonfire as the ritual plays out in the primeval forest.
10. “King Of Birds”
From the peculiar “birdman” rituals of the last track, we reach one of the album’s great instrumental achievements, “King of Birds.” Enveloped in the sound of Buck’s breezy, twangy dulcimer and Bill Berry’s processional, military rat-a-tat, Stipe writes an extension of sorts of Lifes Rich Pageant’s “Swan Swan H” — an impressionistic, quick-cut series of filmic scenes involving “a hundred million birds fly[ing],” an old man laying still, and being left “cold” by “standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Despite the highly-evolved skill brought to the intriguing subject matter, “King of Birds” is not a weird, haunting tone-poem in the style of R.E.M. songs of the past; rather, its idiosyncratic artsiness is merely painted over on top of the generally conventional rock grounding. Whereas “Swan Swan H” and, for example, “Feeling Gravitys Pull” (from Fables of the Reconstruction) were given the freedom to float off into the ether as they might, on this album the band keeps a tight rein on its sound, putting its still-wide variety of irons all into the same fire.
11. “Oddfellows Local 151”
“Oddfellows Local 151” ends the album on a slow, edgy note. Consisting of two chords, growling unobtrusively in the background amid slow-motion feedback squalls, the track is all menace, and its execution is flawless.
Lyrically, the destructive but cleansing inferno that engulfs the album makes its final appearance, and in fact the one-word chorus echoes that of “The One I Love”, except that this time the phrase is “firehouse” instead of simply “fire.” Adding an unsettling air to an already frightening album, this song features Pee Wee, falling down and hitting the ground again, and the need to “wash off the blood, wash off the rum.”
Over the song’s long fade-out, with the band grinding through their two chords and Mills’ skillful bass guitar constantly clearing the cobwebs, Stipe repeatedly enunciates the song’s key word, slowly and eventually surrendering to a dwindling, echoing series of grunts and growls. Like fire itself, Document leaves one feeling gutted yet strangely renewed, the music’s seared edges and glowing embers growing, at long last, dim and still.
Document by R.E.M.
“Welcome To The Occupation”
“Disturbance At The Heron House”
“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
“The One I Love”
“King Of Birds”
“Oddfellows Local 151”