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R.E.M. - R.E.M. at the BBC Music Album Reviews

By bouncing among eras and albums, this enormous box set of sessions and broadcasts offers an elliptical, revisionist portrait of a band whose legacy is largely undecided.

Nearly a decade after they broke up, R.E.M. still elude final judgments. Weird but refined, popular yet coy, they confounded the dreary sellout-versus-purity narrative for so long that they seem now to go unnoticed in each context. With eight CDs and one DVD, the new box set R.E.M. at the BBC reveals moments of persistence amid that flux, from near-unknowns playing provincial towns to Glastonbury headliners at the end of the millennium. The first disc alone draws on five different radio sessions spanning 17 years, from the poised group courting MTV in 1991 to the exhausted one circa 2008, gamely playing their new single “Supernatural Superserious.” Recorded far from home, these tracks document a band made restless by history, the blur caught in a distant mirror.

The breadth of R.E.M. at the BBC does become a little absurd; as much as I love “Losing My Religion,” I’ve never wanted to compare six slightly different versions. (There are also more manageable two-disc or two-LP distillations, divided between sessions and broadcasts.) Such redundancy might be misleading: Due to R.E.M.’s delayed fame in Europe, the set often elides their commercial peak during the early 1990s. Rather than a coming-of-age story culminating in Automatic for the People, the tracklist circles around a disorienting crisis, the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997—he’d suffered a brain aneurysm onstage two years earlier and tired of touring life. Shifting back and forth in time gives the sequencing a sense of rumination, which dovetails with Michael Stipe’s own voice: opaque detachment, resolved by earnest need.

The rarest material here is the third disc, which captures an entire Nottingham concert from 1984. The host introduces them as “those boys from Athens,” as if Reckoning had just been released by Wham! instead of a band that would peak in Britain nearly a decade later. “We’re R.E.M. We’re here from Georgia, which is in the southernmost part of the United States. We’re not proud of our president. We’re sorry,” Stipe says before asking whether somebody can lend a 9.5-sized shoe to replace his broken one. I was struck by how raucous the band sounds, how young. They run through the chorus of “Hyena” like they’re baying at the moon. Bisexual anthem “Pretty Persuasion” gets introduced and interrupted by off-key harmonica as Stipe switches between pronouns, singing “god damn your confusion” with bratty frustration. The show doesn’t have the arena-filling scale of R.E.M.’s later performances, but you can hear their gaunt energy gathering itself into something more.

The subtle revisionism also highlights 1994’s Monster, adapted nearly in its entirety for a 1995 show divided across two discs. Following three platinum-selling records, that album was a back-to-basics move turned perversely false. The lyrics hint at intimate obsessions; the production smears guitar filters over Stipe’s vocals like bleeding lipstick. I love Stipe’s sardonic moue during “Crush With Eyeliner,” about characters failing glamorously at gender: “She’s a real woman-child.” All of these sleazy, lascivious songs sound fabulous live, their artifice translated to theater. Monster’s songs keep returning to the mutual dependency between fan and idol, and here the former can talk back, asserting a little dominance of their own.

As Bill Berry withdrew from R.E.M., the band recorded some of their most delicate work, sad and pretty songs of deepening ambiguity—like “Imitation of Life,” which I find intensely comforting despite or because it begins with the verset “Charades, pop skill/Water hyacinth/Named by a poet.” Whenever such tracks appear here, the lack of studio effects heightens the feeling of absence. During a 1998 Peel Session, the group plays “At My Most Beautiful,” an overt Brian Wilson pastiche written by bassist Mike Mills, who used to drive around Georgia with Berry singing along to Beach Boys 8-tracks. The whistles from the audience fall silent. For several long moments, the only noise is a piano melody and Stipe’s voice: “I count your eyelashes secretly/With every one, whisper, ‘I love you’/I’ll let you sleep.” Those guileless harmonies take over, their hum seeming to double as it meets the crowd.

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