with the confidence, courage and good, swift kick of a rock & roll band at the top of its form.
For R.E.M.'s latest step forward is actually the result of a key step backward. Stipe and company are hardly strangers to change. Without exception, their records combine a spirit of willful perversity with a healthy restlessness and a steadfast refusal to acknowledge either commercial or critical expectations. But in the beginning before the enigmatic electric folk of Murmur, the exploratory smorgasbord of Fables of the Reconstruction and the consummate outlaw pop of Lifes Rich Pageant there was the Beat, and R.E.M. knew how to use it. It was the band's incomparable stage rage, Buck's Who-like slice-and-dice guitar, Stipe's steely vibrato and Mills and Berry's rhythmic tug that wowed Deep South barflies and East Coast in crowds in the early days.
Document captures those thrills and chills in tight, vivid focus. Coproduced by the band and engineer Scott Litt with a striking technical clarity and a diligent respect for bar-band basics, it is the closest to the band's live sound that R.E.M. has come on record since its '82 EP Chronic Town and its 1981 indie single debut, "Radio Free Europe." Despite a few splashes of extra texture (the occasional faint keyboard, Steve Berlin's loco-Trane sax in "Fireplace"), the band assumes a tough instrumental stance, a reduction of possibilities into a spiked-fist thrust that in fact heightens the strange compound of telegraphic imagery and haunting vulnerability in Stipe's lyric transmissions. Indeed, his vocals, which are up front in the mix, are as crisp and distinct as they've ever been, full of emotional portent and physical insistence.
In "The One I Love," a straightforward expression of regret ("This one goes out to the one I left behind") becomes a cry of guilt and pain; Stipe wails, "Fire!" with 3-D torment as Buck's storm-cloud guitars open up with bassy thunder and stabs of lightning twang. "Fireplace" is more abstract in tone; for lyrics, Stipe used extracts from a speech by Mother Ann Lee, the leader of the American Shaker sect in the eighteenth century. But it too crackles with uncommon tension, the product of a fractured waltz rhythm, a weird circular chord structure and the clarion Stipe-Lee call to celebrate life amid hellish chaos "Crazy crazy world/Crazy crazy times/Hang up your chairs/To better s