There’s a lot that can be read into the title of R.E.M.’s 1988 major label debut. One can look at Green as a proud defense of the Athens band’s growing left-wing ideology, or perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the lucrative contract it signed with Warner Bros. But looking back on the record 25 years later, the title might best be taken as an earnest acknowledgement of new beginnings, where a well-respected band turns a corner from its past and ventures eagerly into the musical unknown.
Taken as such, R.E.M. couldn’t have stumbled across a more perfect title than Green, a record that found the soon-to-be alt rock superstars straddling that critical border between their enlightened, art-brat past and the poppier, more commercial sound that awaited them. Michael Stipe gave the band a firm directive when preparing the record to “not write any more R.E.M. -type songs,” evidence of the band’s conscious decision to shift sonic gears. And while Green doesn’t make the quantum leap forward with both feet as explicitly intended, it takes a considerable step forward. R.E.M., as millions of us know them today, were in many respects born here.
Springing off the heals of 1987’s Document, an album that captured the band at its edgiest, Green sands down its predecessor’s rough edges to let scores of mandolin, strings, and piano creep in through the back door. Songs such as “You Are The Everything”, “The Wrong Child”, and “Hairshirt”, with their folk and Americana-tinged roots, wouldn’t have found a respectable home on records like Fables of the Reconstruction or Murmur, but given the success the band would have in the years that followed, it’s hard not to see the shift as a change for the better. Their smart-guy college rock had brought them far, but it wasn’t enough to keep their heads from hitting the ceiling. The growth captured on Green was needed to draw the band out from its insulated art school cocoon and into the warm embrace of the masses.
The change served them well, but Green wasn’t a complete break. Instead, it moved the band forward without sacrificing the cerebral edge that has always been central to its songwriting. “Pop Song 89”, in a delicious piece of irony, found the band skewering pop music’s bland conventions while simultaneously dishing out a damn catchy tune, while “Stand” is an equally addictive call to action, barking loudly in the ears of the passive. Elsewhere, “Orange Crush” and “I Remember California” prove the band hadn’t soured completely on its angsty, guitar pop origins. On Green, the band had it both ways, moving their music forward within reach of legions of new fans while at the same time extending an olive branch for long-time fans to follow along.
The album’s re-release, repackaged through Rhino Records to commemorate its 25th anniversary, features a complimentary slate of live tracks taken from a tour stop in Greensboro, NC on Nov. 10, 1989. The expansive waves of applause are evidence of the band’s then-budding profile, while the spotless production captures every subtle nuance of the band’s airtight 21-song set. R.E.M.’s not much for playful stage banter, but at least it’s fun listening to Stipe labor his way through the annals of pop culture arcana on “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
Time has its way of buoying and tarnishing music in equal measures, but Green, like much of R.E.M.’s early to mid-period material, still holds its own. Cleaner and a bit tighter than its predecessors, the album is a healthy reminder that change, while rarely easy, is sometimes for the best.
Essential Tracks: “Stand”, “Pop Song 89”, “I Remember California”, and “The Wrong Child”