Sound — 8
The year is 1988, and college rock stations around the US are outraged - the prime band behind "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" and "The One I Love" signed up with Warner Bros. Records, resulting in an avalanche of accusations against R.E.M. of selling out from disgruntled fans who feared for the creative output of the band as they were no longer tied to the independent label I.R.S.
Unbeknown to most of the critics, R.E.M. had little future within I.R.S. who pressured them to sell well, and the record labels distributor MCA Records seeing little priority in them, and therefore sought towards Warner Bros. records, in spite of higher bidding offers by other big labels, exactly because they were promised unhindered creative freedom by Warner Bros. (oh, how the world has changed).
The first album off the new label was "Green," and it was neither the sell-out record expected by fans, nor an easy-listening album full to the brim with pop-songs. With everything from the scorching guitars in "Orange Crush" to the sweet and tender mandolin-driven "You Are the Everything," to the ominous riffs and chant-like singing in "I Remember California," to the silly-but-charming pop-rock of "Stand," it was an album spanning a larger soundscape than seen before in any other R.E.M. recording. Particularly the compositions marked a (so far) high point in R.E.M.'s career, showing great versatility and ingenuity, and almost all compositions highlighting each members talents.
The album kicks of with some more propelling rock songs with "Pop Song 89" and "Get Up," the former which features an atonal Pavement-esque guitar motif by Peter Buck with Mike Mills double-tracking his bass-parts with his signature warm and melodic driving alongside the rumbling drums with a flat fuzzy riff running on top of the mix. "Get Up" revs up the energy with some straight forward rocking riffs, though giving a more weird style to the vocals with Mills high-pitched backup vocals singing "Get up, get up!," before the bridge descends into a mess of thousands of music-boxes going off at once, before taking a final chorus that leaves one on the edge of ones seat.
Another common set of songs that follows in the wake of the opening tracks are the mandolin-driven songs "You Are the Everything," "The Wrong Child" and "Hairshirt." While all of them feature a similar instrumentation, one cannot help but be impressed how wildly different the approaches are in each song, with "You Are the Everything" being a bittersweet, tender song with an emphasis on the acoustic that lends a hint of what would come to be later on. On the contrary, "The Wrong Child" has a unsettling, haunting atmosphere with an double vocal very akin to the Pixies, with layered guitars, and suddenly shifting moods, and "Hairshirt" while being rather understated, being a opportunity for Michael Stipe to show his vocal and lyrical prowess.
Sandwiched between those acoustic songs we find the prime singles of the record with "Stand," "World Leader Pretend," and "Orange Crush." Again, a great diversity in musical approaches to each song marks them out as individually significant compositions. "Stand" stands out (heh) on being an upbeat, silly song with a joyous guitar riff, jittery bass, and hammond-organ driving the song forward - particularly the guitar work is notable for being much more upfront than Bucks usual style, even going as far as to featuring a more conventional wah-laiden guitar solo before developing into increasingly higher key-changes towards the end, pushing the vocal abilities of both Stipe and Mills to their very reach. "Orange Crush" hails back to the more rocking songs of the beginning, though taking it a notch higher with scorching guitars, a funky bass, blazing drums and the enchanting vocals of the chorus, paired together with the unforgettable bridge with Michael's megaphone speech resulting into an instant R.E.M. classic and a staple of live-performances for the rest of their career. "World Leader Pretend" on the other hand, stands as a unique composition that lends into several angles of development in R.E.M.'s sound, featuring both the well-familiar morose feel with jangly guitars and a despairing vocals that could very well be from the IRS days, but also having a much more grave and matured vibe that lends to "Automatic for the People," and also diverting into a country-esque bridge with a wailing pedal steel guitar paired with the energetic and off-kilter percussion of Bill Berry. Overall, "World Leader Pretend" is one of the absolute highlights from a compositional point of view, balancing many factors into a blend that doesn't seem come across as forced, on the contrary perfectly complementing each other.
Towards the end of this record we find the tracks "Turn You Inside Out," "I Remember California" and the final untitled track known primarily as just "11." "Turn You Inside Out" manages to groove very well with Mills driving bass-line and the attention-grabbing chorus, and is a strong piece on its own, but falls flat when compared to the sequels of album highlights following each other before it, though it should not be disregarded for that alone. "I Remember California" once again brings back not only the strength needed, but the compositional skills that make breathes life into the album and showcases the versatility thereof. Not only is "I Remember California" unique for the record, but also unique in R.E.M.'s career with it's extraordinarily ominous presence, with a guitar-riff that could almost be lifted of a Black Sabbath album, murky thumping drums, and chant-like singing that makes the song feel almost evil, though juxtapositioned with the seemingly more careless lyrics that however cover over a sensation of disillusionment and anger, before ending in a floating, driftless bridge with the final chant, "at the edge of the continent" ringing long after the song has ended. While this would had been a tremendous finale on the album we are unfortunately met with "11" on a final note. A small, sweet piece that however suffers from the same issues as "Turn You Inside" out, paling severely against the grandeur and power of its predecessor, and on top of that does not lend into the strengths found elsewhere in the album, which while not affecting the previous tour de force, still manages to end the album on a unsatisfactory note.
Lyrics — 7
Michael Stipe had long before marked himself out as a skilled lyricist before Green, which is among the primary factors that singled out R.E.M. from other up-and-coming college-rock bands of the early-mid '80s, and Green is no exception, dabbling both into the mundane, with bothersome small-talk in "Pop Song 89," inactivity and apathy in "Get Up," finding your way in "Stand," or simply missing someone in "11," while also lending to grander themes such as fear of aging in "You Are the Everything," the connection between personalities and politics in "World Leader Pretend," isolation and mental illness in "The Wrong Child," and dichotomy between expectations/hopes versus reality in "I Remember California."
The album does have its shortcomings on this however, as this album might be pinpointed as the first time Stipe wrote carefree/silly lyrics that didn't also have some sense of poetry over them. For instance one can compare the songs "Gardening at Night" against "Stand." "Gardening at Night" is a song that is (I'm not kidding) supposedly inspired by pissing in the bushes after a night out - However, the song itself while making an euphemism for it in the title, retains a more cryptic angle in the lyrics by not explicitly delving into that element, but rather investigating the sense of meddling about at late nights. "Stand" while instrumentally great, suffers lyrically by being childish for no justifiable reason. To compare it to an in-album track, "I Remember California" makes childish imaginations of California ("I remember redwood trees, bumper cars and wolverines / The ocean's Trident submarines / Lemons, limes and tangerines"), but ultimately not only leads to compare them with the actual California, mocking those childish ideas, but also transforms the song in the process into a symbol for American expansionism, comparing it with a wild goose chase that leads only to disillusionment.
However, the lyrical shortcomings of songs like "Stand," and "11" do not detract from either the intricacy or the power in other songs. Even mundane subjects like apathy and laziness in "Get Up" are put into words that hit the nail on the head of the subjects, for example with the chorus where Stipe sings "Dreams, they the complicate my life," whereas Mills sings "Dreams, they complement my life," drawing in the difference between how laziness stumps one from achieving goals, but one does not ultimately care. Even within complex subjects such as the person analyzing himself in political terms in "World Leader Pretend" manages to convey it's cryptic subject in a understandable and relatable manner, such as "I recognize the weapons / I've practiced them well / I fitted them myself," where the protagonist, in line with his previous realization of that he's "waging war" on himself, understands that whatever he creates to fight himself, will be fought back by himself, achieving nothing but a stalemate, which harkens again back to a previous line about "decreeing a stalemate."
Throughout the entire album, there's really no point where Stipe's voice falters or feels in the wrong place. Regardless of lyrical content, Stipe manages to use his characteristic voice in many different shades and nuances that fit the character of each song, be it tender in "11," unsettling in "The Wrong Child," bored in "Pop Song 89," or agitated in "Orange Crush."
Overall Impression — 8
"Green" manages to bridge well between the shifting style R.E.M. was undergoing between the '80s and '90s, while standing out as a unique and worthwhile record on its own. Songs like "Pop Song 89," "World Leader Pretend," "You Are the Everything," "Orange Crush" and "I Remember California" are definite highlights of the album, each giving a well-balanced portrayal of the many shades and styles held within this album, which should not be underestimated even against the most renowned R.E.M. records such as "Murmur," "Document," or "Automatic for the People." This said, the album does suffer from being slighted overloaded, with songs like "Turn You Inside Out" and "11" perhaps being more suiting as strong B-sides, which would leave the overall tracklist more concise and linear in variations and most importantly finishing touch. To conclude, I'd argue this is a record I'd argue deserves more attention than it gets, being often forgotten by fans as an "in-betweener" album between the classic phase of R.E.M. during the IRS years and the golden phase with commercial and critical success during early-mid '90s.