It is extremely rare for a band to achieve a creative advance simultaneous to its breakthrough to a mainstream audience. But that’s exactly what R.E.M accomplished with the ever so appropriately titled Document. Accordingly, more so than perhaps any other of its anniversary reissues (except perhaps the two CDs of the Fables of the Reconstruction box), this landmark album deserves the deluxe treatment it receives.
Housed in a mini-box including postcards, a poster and a booklet, the two CDs in this package capture a rock and roll band at the top of its game, the rules of which they had, by the time of its release, written virtually by themselves. The epitome of alternative rock independents, R.E.M. had grown incrementally as songwriters, performers and recording artists by the time they inaugurated work with Scott Litt as session producer for their fifth full length album and, while it may be arguable the magnification of the recorded sound, not to mention its pristine quality, is the biggest advance the engineer/co-producer brought to the proceedings, there’s no debate these virtues, accentuated via digital re-mastering (here by bob Ludwig), are the most direct reflections of the band’s growth.
And the same goes for Document’s commercial impact. R.E.M aficionados will still be delighted at the thought the Athens, Georgia band’s first bonafide hit, "The One I love," is an exercise in irony the likes of which the group, and vocalist/chief lyricist Michael Stipe in particular, never surpassed. But it’s hardly less memorable than the exultant likes of "It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" for a band that demurred from placing photos of itself on its album covers, to express itself so clearly and directly as this, even when the tunes come from opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, is no small gesture.
In a slightly different but no less crucial vein, R.E.M.’s decision to include a live recording of a show from the initial Document tour ratifies the collective confidence that permeated this entire project at its inception. And if the politics of those times don’t come to mind, there’s David Daley’s fiery essay to recall them and suggest, in no uncertain terms (but no direct hints), that it’s no coincidence this title is being re-released during this presidential election year. If R.E.M. hadn’t just disbanded in 2011, they might well come out of retirement to play this album but they’d be hard pressed to light things up brighter than during the September 1987 concert from Holland included here.
Without attempting to play the studio arrangements note for note, the quartet offers near half of the newly released album, but also cuts a broad swath through their previous discography. In so doing the musicians imbue tunes as varied in time and style as "So. Central Rain," "Wolves, Lower" and "Feeling Gravity’s Pull" with an edgy purpose that, even when in the jangle-pop style they trademarked, resonates deeply and resoundingly. The impact of this release, and R.E.M. itself, might be described similarly.