Monday, July 25, 2016

Green: The People's Favourite R.E.M. Album

Last week, I ran a series of polls on Twitter to determine once and for all which of R.E.M.'s 15 albums (and one EP) people like best. I called it the 'World Cup of R.E.M. Albums' and it worked in much the same way as an international football tournament, with a group stage followed by a series of head-to-head knockout rounds. 

There were lots of surprises over the course of the tournament. For example, Murmur - the debut album that Rolling Stone named 'Best Album of 1983' ahead of Michael Jackson's Thriller - sensationally crashed out in the group stage after failing to amass more votes than either Lifes Rich Pageant or Automatic for the People. Quite a few people weren't best pleased with this result.

The eventual winner was also something of a surprise. It wasn't Out of Time (the one with Losing My Religion), and it wasn't Automatic for the People (the one that's sold something like 18 million copies to date), and it sadly wasn't Fables of the Reconstruction (my personal favourite) either. Nope - it was actually 1988's Green that emerged victorious after beating its immediate predecessor, Document, in the grand final with 56% of the overall vote.

So what is it about Green that resonates and elevates it above all else in the eyes of the many R.E.M. fans who voted for it? Certainly, many of the album's tracks are quite politically-driven, and it's not hard to see how that might appeal to weary liberals in 2016, the year of Trump and Brexit and goodness knows what else. World Leader Pretend in particular sounds almost prophetic, what with all its talk of walls and stuff.

Other examples of Green's appetite for tackling big issues abound: the title of Orange Crush is a reference to Agent Orange, a chemical weapon utilised by US forces during the Vietnam War, while Pop Song 89 politely asks if we ought to talk about subjects like climate change ("the weather") and the government more candidly. I Remember California sounds like an ominous vision of nuclear apocalypse on the Pacific Coast, although admittedly that may be because the phrase 'Trident submarines' carries certain associations here in the UK.

But what really sets Green apart is, in my opinion, not its willingness to address challenging political and environmental questions but its talent for juxtaposing those questions with intensely, emotively personal moments. Yes, tracks like Orange Crush remind us of the havoc that people can wreak upon this planet, but it's songs such as You Are the Everything and The Wrong Child and the untitled eleventh track that remind us that there are people on that planet who we should want to protect, people with thoughts and feelings and rich lives that hang in the balance when governments go to war and plunder the world's resources for their own ends.

When you're making a big political statement, it's easy to lose that human element that makes it relatable and reinforces the reason why people should care about what you're telling them. Document has its share of political statements to make, but that album differs from Green in that it seldom shows you the human characters at the centre of it all. Welcome to the Occupation and Disturbance at the Heron House are undeniably great songs, but neither one is as affecting as the likes of World Leader Pretend or that untitled track, both of which feel like they're being sung by real, three-dimensional people with real, three-dimensional stakes in what they're singing about.

Gawd, this song gives me heartaches.

So that's why I think Green won it. It's not my favourite R.E.M. album, but I can certainly see how that blend of small-scale humanity and big-scale political anger has won so many hearts over the years. Congratulations, Green - you're a worthy people's champion.

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