In 1988, R.E.M. were standing on shifting sands. The quartet from Athens, Georgia had been cultivating an underground following over the previous seven years after arriving on the scene as an unknown college rock band but the success of 1987′s “The One I Love” had changed the game for them. The US Top 10 hit had turned the band’s cult status into that of genuine pop stars.
It was an uncomfortable segue for some fans and the band themselves felt that they were on the cusp of a major change. In fact, a literal major change helped to push R.E.M. in the direction that in less than five years would see them become one of the biggest acts on the planet.
The success of “The One I Love” gave the band the confidence and the power to finally jump ship from IRS, the label that had released their early and murky Deep South repertoire. Unhappy at the label’s distribution policy which they felt was holding them back, R.E.M. left for Warner Bros in a deal which was reportedly between $6 million and $12 million. More alarm bells sounded for the fans who felt the band were beginning to sell out. In fact, other labels offered them more cash but Warner’s gave them what they wanted most: total creative freedom.
That freedom gave birth to what many consider to be not only their true breakthrough album but one of their greatest: Green.
Rather than taking it easy after securing their major label contract, R.E.M. used the power of Warner’s and the freedom of expression afforded them to release an album of quite startling ambition, in the context of their career and the late-80′s alternative rock scene in which Green was released.
They would go on and have bigger hits and garner wider mass appeal but Green could be argued as a document of the band at the height of its creative powers. Green sees the band expanding both musically and lyrically, balancing their subtle politicking with a more playful approach which allows them to flex their muscles.
Switching, in guitarist Peter Buck’s words, from “minor key, mid-tempo, enigmatic, semi-folk-rock-balladish things” to major key rock songs, R.E.M. left nobody in doubt that they were after the biggest prizes.
Opening with “Pop Song 89” was a brave statement of this ambition, with its Doors-esque intro and Michael Stipe’s almost chirpy delivery which seemed a word away from the sludgy days of Murmur and Reckoning.
Followed by the sweet, dreamy “Get Up,” with its massive guitars and handclaps, and the plaintive mandolin workout of “You Are the Everything,” Green opens in three very different styles before the bubble-gum pop of “Stand” bursts forth with hit-single written all over it.
There’s a freedom about these songs which feels like the band is breaking out of its chains – albeit while riding an out of control emotional rollercoaster, and being allowed to do so thanks to producer Scott Litt’s restraint.
The good mood is then tempered by “World Leader Pretend,” with its Cold War imagery and analysis of emotional stasis and personal failings. It’s a dark but beautiful song which seems to be a practice run for the equally introspective and soul-searching “Losing My Religion” which would catapult them further into the rock stratosphere on its release three years later.
The album’s first half ends with “The Wrong Child” which plays out like a regression hypnosis session, all dreamy recollection and eerie, disembodied harmonies over playful, child-like strings.
As if to wake the listener up, we’re shook back to consciousness by Buck’s staccato guitars, Bill Berry’s carpet-bombing drums and Mike Mills’ artillery bursts of bass on “Orange Crush.” The song, which according to Stipe was about a young American football player leaving the comforts of home to fight in the Vietnam War, bravely reopens old wounds and assures those who may have been worrying about the band’s embracing of the lighter side of pop that Stipe and Co. would not be abandoning their angst-ridden roots or letting anyone off the hook.
If the fans needed further convincing that dark forces could still play their part, the pounding, weirded-out stomp of “Turn You Inside Out” follows. The mood is lifted again with the lilting “Hairshirt” but before the chiming “Untitled” brings Green to what – for R.E.M. in 1988, at least – could be considered a happy ending, we have the downbeat stream of consciousness of “I Remember California.”
R.E.M would have greater commercial success and a wider reach with 1991′s Out of Time but Green was the important transitional album in terms of style and substance.
Earlier albums had been steeped in the folk legends of their home state with stories set in the swamps and forests of Georgia.
Green was bursting with youthful innocence and simplicity, especially in its mostly light and playful first half which owed much to its Sixties-inflected pop influences.
Far from being too sickly sweet, however, R.E.M. managed to balance the lightness of songs such as “Stand” and “Pop Song ’89″ with the ominous and introverted “World Leader Pretend,” the ferocious and apocalyptic “Orange Crush” and the discordant psychedelic grind of “Turn You Inside Out.”
Somewhere in-between, helped by Peter Buck’s nascent mandolin playing – getting its first outing on Green – there are neo-folk numbers such as “Hairshirt” and “You Are the Everything.”
R.E.M. may have attracted legions of fans through their swampy take on new wave and post punk but it would be their growing and hugely proficient range, first exhibited on Green, which would make them megastars.
Green marked the end of one era for R.E.M. but the beginning of a new chapter which would prove hugely successful.
Their last record of the 1980′s, the band would take a three year recording break after Green to return with 1991′s Out of Time which would top the album charts in both the US and the UK, going gold in Britain and marking the band’s European breakthrough.
But Out of Time would not have been possible without Green which remains a proficient, challenging and often euphoric hybrid of the band’s embryonic darkness and their increasing use of lighter shades which would punctuate their early major label releases – but which would eventually became an all too blinding glare in their later years. In this respect, Green contains the ultimate distillation of the essence of R.E.M.
This article first appeared on PULUCHE.COM