For Document R.E.M. picked up a much harder edge than previous albums. Sure, Life’s Rich Pageant dabbled a bit with more aggressive guitar, but Document has a much harsher sound throughout. And it sounds so, so good.
Document practically kicks you in the face with the opening track, “Finest Worksong.” A whip-crack snare and then Peter Buck is off to the races with an almost metal guitar intro that sets the rhythm.
There’s more than a little The Who influence here. And Michael Stipe’s voice, once again, is crisp and clear at the forefront. This is, by the way, true to its title. If “Finest Worksong” doesn’t motivate you to get shit done, seek medical care.
R.E.M. gets (more) political
R.E.M. has taken on some political overtones with Document. “Welcome to the Occupation,” and “Exhuming McCarthy” in particular. “Exhuming McCarthy” is also the first R.E.M. song I can recall with “found” sounds or samples, starting with the typewriter setting the tempo at the beginning, and then audio of Joseph Welch chastising Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings. There’s some heavy keyboard on this one, and I seem to recall it was Peter Holsapple on this track but I can’t find anything today that confirms this.
Document also features a punched-up cover of Wire‘s “Strange.” It’s more accessible than the original, but it takes no prisoners. Even though R.E.M. was ramping to playing arenas, this feels like a bar band cut.
Casual R.E.M. fans will know this album by “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Keeping up with Stipe’s rapid-fire delivery of its word-association lyrics was one of my hobbies as a teen. It’s also the ultimate earworm, so beware.
Mandatory 80s saxaphone
I can’t resist pointing out the mandatory 80s saxophone on “Fireplace,” which duets with Buck’s guitar during the bridge and solos brilliantly towards the end of the song. Damn fine song.
“Lightnin’ Hopkins” has a powerful beat, and Stipe is sounding a little hoarse or more excited than usual. Bill Berry is going crazy on the ride cymbal on this one, and double timing the bass drum. Document rarely takes its foot off the gas, the tempo for this one in particular is intense.
“King of Birds” is the rare occasion where the band brings the tempo down on Document. There’s an almost military cadence to Berry’s use of the snare here, and Buck’s using a light hand with the guitar for much of the track. Stipe flexes his vocal chords a bit here, with a soaring delivery.
Document closes with “Oddfellows Local 151.” This one has a really heavy bass line by Mike Mills, and a wall-of-sound guitar approach by Buck. Everybody in the band is completely dialed in.
There’s zero filler on Document. The entire album is absolutely perfect, one of the best in their catalog.