REM’s first release for their freshly-inked deal with Warner Bros Records, having moved on from their indie years with IRS, usually gets passed over due to the albums surrounding it: 1987’s Document features two of their biggest commercial hits, “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”, and 1991’s Out of Time features “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”. What does 1988’s Green have, though? It’s a bit disjointed (on purpose), it’s a shift away from their classic pastoral folk sound (on purpose), and even its lyrics are less obscure and more understandable (again, on purpose). But it’s a hell of a fine album with some absolutely stunning and gorgeous tunes from start to finish.
REM has always worn their politics on their sleeves (this particular album contains a recurring theme of environmentalism), and in the release of Green was actually timed to coincide with the 1988 Presidential election with a brilliant promo postcard sent to record stores and radio stations:
While the ’88 election may not have finished the way they’d hoped, that didn’t stop them from continuing to use their voice for progressive reasons. Though this particular album may not be as overtly political as some of their previous releases, it certainly did bring issues to light by revising how they wrote their music. Singer Michael Stipe had requested the band “not write any more REM-type songs” in order to change their style.
As was becoming habit, the album kicks off with a lively, upbeat pop song, literally called “Pop Song ’89”, welcoming the listener to tune in and have a bit of fun. The video for the single (released in May 1989 and directed by Stipe himself) is goofy fun, featuring four topless dancers — including himself. When MTV asked to censor the video for airplay, he cheekily responded by providing an edit with black bars on all four bodies.
It’s quickly followed by another uptempo rocker, “Get Up”, which seems to actually be about asking someone to get up and out of bed. [Wikipedia states that in the late 90s, Stipe told an audience that this is indeed the case and was about bassist Mike Mills, who had been oversleeping during the sessions.] It became the fourth single from the album, and while it didn’t dent the charts, the video did start the career of one CalArts student named Eric Darnell, who went on to be a successful director of several CGI-animated movies like Antz and Madagascar.
Next up is a change of pace, hinting both at their earlier folk sound and later mandolin-heavy sound, with “You Are the Everything”. It’s a simple love song, but it’s a gorgeous one, and one that I’m pretty sure I used on a mix-tape to my then-girlfriend some months later.
Returning to the upbeat pop sound, they return with the fun and goofy “Stand”, right up there with “Can’t Get There from Here” as proof that the band definitely has a sense of humor. It’s such a chipper song that it’s hard to take seriously — even Stipe cracks himself up at the end of the video. This would be the second single from the record, and still gets airplay to this day.
It’s followed up, however, by a one-two punch of darker, more somber songs to finish up the first side of the record, with “World Leader Pretend” and “The Wrong Child” — both songs that at first listen seem to be about other people, but in actuality are about the narrator. One focuses on the inner turmoil of breaking down self-imposed barriers, while the other focuses on the outer turmoil of social acceptance. Both are about the strength needed to change and accept the self despite its physical and emotional obstacles.
Side Two kicks off with one of my favorite REM songs and the most overtly political song off the album, “Orange Crush”, and the album’s first single. It’s powerful and relentless in its energy, even during the breakdown halfway through. It has a deliberately mixed message, seeming to be pro-military while consistently reminding us of its horrors (the title refers to Agent Orange, used as herbicidal warfare in Vietnam).
It’s followed up by another song that uses this deceptive messaging to great effect: the positive and upbeat “Turn You Inside-Out” may sound like a fun rocker of a track, but its lyrics barely contain its bile. Its message seems to be “I could make your life really fucking miserable right now, but I’m going to be the better man instead.” During a stop on their subsequent tour, Stipe would dedicate this song to Exxon, whose Valdez oil tanker had struck the Alaskan coastline and spilled thousands of gallons of oil.
The record comes to a close with three deep tracks that have their own special charm, starting with “Hairshirt”, with its tender message of remaining human in the most adverse of situations. [This seems to be about Stipe’s methods of dealing with fame and privacy; he would later have a conversation with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke about this very thing, inspiring Yorke to write “How to Disappear Completely”.]
It’s followed up with “I Remember California”, a surprisingly post-apocalyptic tale of a west coast decimated by rising oceans and climate change. It’s haunting in that it’s not so much about the destruction (or even the destructive powers), but the sadness about What Used to Be, through the eyes of someone who can no longer return.
The record ends on an unexpectedly high and positive note with an upbeat untitled song (officially called “Untitled Eleventh Track” on some discographies) where, at the end of the day, despite its struggles and frustrations, we are all here for each other. [It’s been said that drummer Bill Berry thought the drum pattern for this song was so stupid he refused to play it; guitarist Peter Buck fills in instead.] The song does seem a bit like an afterthought or an epilogue, but it does help bookend the album quite nicely.
I remember listening to this record a hell of a lot during my senior year in high school. I also remember quoting many of its lyrics on the blackboard in my first period Humanities class (a friend and I often wrote a ‘quote for the day’ before class started, and the teacher didn’t seem to mind at all). I would see them on tour in early April 1989, with Indigo Girls opening up — thus introducing me to yet another fantastic and long-loved band. The album has always stayed with me over the years as their most accessible and enjoyable from start to finish. It pretty much cemented my love for the band. It’s not their most popular, but for me it’s their most solid and most adventurous work.