Picture the scene – your house is on fire, and you’re frantically trying to salvage your record collection, well aware that if you attempt to keep the whole lot then you’ll end up flame-zingered. Only the R.E.M. CDs have survived the blaze thus far, the firefighters are yelling at you to get the hell out of there, and you can’t carry them all, so which of these albums do you leave to be incinerated? As the flames rise and the smoke fills your lungs, you have an epiphany: REM really went downhill after Document and in all honesty nothing after that album is worth saving, including Automatic For The People (ed: sacrilege! Blasphemy!). Having seen the light, you leave with the first five LPs plus Chronic Town and Dead Letter Office.
Criticism of R.E.M.’s later work aside, it’s hard to think of an album superior to Document that came out of North America in 1987. It spawned two significant singles and put R.E.M. firmly on the trans-Atlantic map. The album is political yet accessible and mostly mainstream-friendly, no bad thing in itself, and it makes you wonder what might have been. Produced by Scott Litt, and their last release on IRS before they transferred to Warner, it’s unashamedly contemporary, dealing with US foreign policy during the Cold War through the eyes of Noam Chomsky and taking a didactic approach to the subject matter. “Welcome To The Occupation,” written about Nicaragua and US gunboat diplomacy, is a scathing attack on the Monroe Doctrine, with Stipe singing of “Fire on the hemisphere below.” Jingoism and its use to conceal realpolitik and economics are the targets of Stipe’s ire in “Exhuming McCarthy,” which features a sample of Welch castigating the infamous senator. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is a slow-pan look at the world through TV news with tame reporters “baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped,” critical of a “government for hire.” Some of this can grate on the listener today, but one has to bear in mind the fact that the messages in these lyrics were contentious at the time, and indeed are unsettlingly relevant today. For those who like their music strictly apolitical there’s still stadium-rock melody aplenty here, and the lyrics themselves are delivered with very listenable passion. “It’s The End” exemplifies this: Stipe is reconciling his fears about world events with the realization that he can’t do anything about them, and is caught between embracing MTV-soaked soporific escapism or paying attention.
The band’s lyrics elsewhere on the album are much more loose in terms of meaning, but the college-rock guitars are at least fan-pleasingly wild and jagged. If the album were released today, the music would stand up very well, sounding very commercial compared to earlier albums, particularly on “King Of Birds” which is a rocking ballad with suitably epic lyrics along with a reluctance to accept grandeur, as Stipe complains that “Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold.” Stipe’s delivery on this album is much clearer than on previous releases, and he gives an excellent vocal performance on “Exhuming McCarthy” in particular. An unusual addition to the album is the cover of Wire’s “Strange,” which is musically more akin to new wave than R.E.M.’s typical output, although it adds value to the album with its musing that “There’s something going on that’s not quite right.” This is R.E.M. able to tread the line between mass appeal and lyrical obscurity before they became as unchallenging and comfortable as an old pair of slippers.
1987 was rather a poor year for music, but Document hasn’t just made it onto the list by default; it’s still a confident, competent album today, more than capable of earning a place in the collection. It mostly sounds superb, and there’s plenty of sense and candor in the lyrics, at least during the first half of the album before they descend a little into Stipe’s obscurantist mire that comes across as somewhat pretentious.