Today, Green is 25. Bands need their landmarks and Green fulfills the same role of The Unforgettable Fire by U2, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths and Remain in Light by Talking Heads. It’s a release bookended by the animated and mumbly angst of youth on one hand and a meaningful settlement into maturity on the other.
“Pop Song 89” starts things off more clearly than Michael Stipe usually tends to. His aim before was a lyrical vocabulary inviting questions and open interpretation. But now, he’s got his heart on his sleeve and he’s the one confused.
“Hello, I saw you, I know you, I knew you / I think I can remember your name / Hello, I’m sorry, I lost myself / I think I thought you were somebody else / Should we talk about the weather? / Should we talk about the government?”
In Stipe’s voice and Peter Buck’s jangly guitar tones, the song sounds like a party favor going off. But imagine those lyrics and sounds in the hands of Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood or perhaps in the darkest David Byrne discotheque. In such hands, it’s an ode to disconnection.
“Get Up” takes its guitars and pumps them up with an intensity and wailing conjuring up thoughts of the soon-to-be released Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. There’s a sprightliness these Georgians bring to even that ominous guitar sound and it’s wedded perfectly to their repeated refrain here: “Dreams, they complicate my life / Dreams, they complement my life.” Their genius on Green and future classics like “Everybody Hurts” was to never forget the second half of that adage while holding fast to the first as well.
“You Are The Everything” is where they ushered in the sound they’d be most remembered for. As soon as Peter Buck committed this mandolin-strummed ditty to recording, he and his bandmates had the prototype for Automatic for the People and Out of Time. Here they established a bayou sounding sense of Southern hospitality, a Flannery O’Connor kind of honest and gothic aesthetic. It’s the sound expanded upon in the darkness of Automatic’s “Drive” or its most haunting ballad “Sweetness Follows.” Stipe has rarely been as poetic and softspokenly profound as he is here. “I look at her and I see the beauty / Of the light of music.” Listen to this and you will too.
“Stand” is perhaps most notable for its ability to make its listeners sway their arms in an absurd, circular motion, as per its music video. And I’ll come right out and say it: this is just a stupid, pointless song! It has the philosophical weight of Happy Gilmore. But who doesn’t like Happy Gilmore? Maybe some people. But they are, objectively speaking, godless fascists. It sounds like Disney’s California Adventure so don’t take yourself so seriously and spin your arms in a circle too, dammit!
“World Leader Pretend” is Stipe at his metaphorical best and his most introspective. It’s the story of a man at war with himself, humble enough to know he has no control over others but hubristic enough to think he can be the “World Leader Pretend” over himself. Given Green’s appearance at the tail end of the Cold War, Stipe made the most of his ability to latch on to the quiet clash of world powers for its ideas of stalemate and built-up barricades.
“This is my world, and I am the World Leader Pretend / This is my life, and this is my time / I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit / It’s high time I razed the walls that I’ve constructed.”
Eighties America was rife with messages of the triumph of American freedom and individualism, especially in the face of socialistic tyranny. Stipe’s words are wise. Even if we’re allowed to run ourselves, be our own World Leader Pretends, we’ll muck it up just as badly as a tyrannical government. The freedom to do as we see fit is often as much a burden as it is a blessing.
And soak in that piano and lap steel.
“The Wrong Child” channels the same spirit as “You Are The Everything.” Present again are the mandolins and downtime warbles. For anyone who remembers their misfit youth, this song should bring a tear to their eye. It’s a perfectly captured Polaroid of an isolated childhood won over by a defiant acceptance. When Stipe sings “It’s okaaaaaaaayyy!” as this lonely child, the power is palpable. “Come play with me, I whispered to my newfound friend / Tell me what it’s like to go outside / I’ve never been / And I never will.”
It’s a potent picture of the album as a whole. Stipe’s sense of creeping isolation and childhood insecurity made sure their first albums were colored by mumbles and misunderstandings. Brilliant ones, at that. But now, on Green and “The Wrong Child” in particular, he’s ready to say what he means loud and proud
“Orange Crush” is so badass. Need more be said?
“Turn You Inside Out” doesn’t really have as much to recommend it lyrically as other tracks on the album. Other than the shouted, enigmatic chant, “I believe in what you do, I believe in watching you,” the real strength here lies in the power of the guitar’s onslaughts and battle cries.
“Hairshirt” brings back those mandolins yet again and it should be no surprise how sentimental the result is. Funnily enough, this is the song which most possesses R.E.M.’s upcoming, trademark nineties sound and also the song whose lyrical style most conjures up the abstract mutterings of Murmur, Reckoning and Life’s Rich Pageant. If you’re looking for the bridge between the two sounds, here it is!
“I Remember California” is the most post-punk I’ve ever heard these guys and the second most apocalyptic (after “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”). As someone born and bred in California, I’ve got to give Stipe credit for creating such a nightmarishly accurate picture of the state. The premise seems to be an old one: what if California just off and tumbled into the sea? Outside all the perfectly descriptive and evocative language about remembering the state itself, the most entrancing mantra is: “I recall that you were there / Golden smile and shining hair / I recall it wasn’t fair / Recollect it wasn’t fair / Remembering it wasn’t fair outside.” Maybe we Californians deserve submergence after all.
“Untitled” fits as well as an album closer as it would as an ‘80s movie end credits song. It’s more a postscript than an ending. The organ rolls accentuate each statement of Stipean kum-bay-ah. “I’ve seen the world,” he sings. And once you get to the end of Green, you’d be a fool to think he hadn’t.
R.E.M.‘s lyrics got less and less cryptic, their music more and more pronouncedly accessible, as time trod on. Green has the appeal of the girlfriend or boyfriend you date right before you meet your wife or husband: a fond memory, an underdeveloped but necessary stepping stone for the both of you, so close to full potential you sometimes wonder on your worst days of marriage if they were the best after all. Green is the fine line between what you used to want and what you’d eventually settle down with, the middle state between Murmur and Automatic for the People, a wedding of innocence and experience.