Green: R.E.M.'s Greatest Album

It was incredibly idealistic, and it might have sounded naïve—except that in the fall of 1988, that seemed to be the way no less important a world leader than Mikhail Gorbachev actually was thinking. Less than a month after Green came out, Gorbachev stood in front of the United Nations and called for “a consensus of all mankind, in movement toward a new world order.” The walls were about to come down, and R.E.M. knew it.

Throughout the album, the band often seemed like it was trying to break down another wall—the barrier that separated musicians from their audience. “In some of the earlier stuff, I refused to use the word ‘I’ or the word ‘you,’” Stipe admitted in Should We Talk About the Weather? On Green, he used both pronouns constantly—and often interchangeably, as if the distinction didn’t much matter. “Here I am, here I am / In your life,” he croons in “Hairshirt.” “It's a beautiful life / My life, it’s a beautiful life / Your life.”

Most intimate of all was “You Are the Everything.” The song starts out with a confession: “Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing / I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me.” Then the “I” shifts to “you”—you’re lying in the backseat of a car, gazing out at stars that are “the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, and they’re there for you / For you alone / You are the everything.”

In my small Midwestern town, there was never any shortage of stars. I used to sit on my front steps and look up at them while everyone else was sleeping. With Green on my Walkman, it was hard sometimes to tell where I ended and the rest of the universe began. That feeling of everything-ness was the exact opposite of fear. I thought of those nights years later when I read a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke called “Buddha in Glory”: “Illumined in your infinite peace / A billion stars go spinning through the night, / blazing high above your head. / But in you is the presence that / will be, when all the stars are dead.”

***

Looking back after 25 years, I’m not quite sure what to make of those euphoric days. The world never did reach the grand consensus Gorbachev spoke about. The Berlin Wall came down, but Eastern Europe was instantly overrun by gangs, oligarchs, and ethnic clashes. Then came the Gulf War and the Rwandan genocide and the massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Instead of coming together, the world shattered into dozens of tiny pieces.

Maybe that’s why R.E.M. never made another record like Green. The 1991 follow-up album, Out of Time, was an introspective collection of songs about loneliness and unrequited love. The “I” and the “you” were still there, but now they were poles apart. “Life is bigger, bigger than you,” Stipe sang in “Losing My Religion,” “and you are not me.” The record after that, Automatic for the People, was even more somber; almost every song seemed to be about people who were dead or thinking about death. Both of those albums sold many times more copies than Green ever did, and they resonate with many more people today. There will always be a place for that kind of gorgeous melancholy.

But lately, I’ve found myself listening to Green again. It’s still the album I turn to when I need to make sense of it all. A lot has been said about the Millennial generation and how its worldview was shaped by the attacks of September 11th. My own political awakening happened to come about at a time when fears were lifting and everything felt new. On some fundamental level, Green is still the way I see the world.

But back in junior high, when I sat there carving YOU ARE THE EVERYTHING into the desks at school, there were certain things I didn’t understand. I didn’t realize what Stipe meant when he sang, “I think about this world a lot and I cry at night / I’ve seen the films and the eyes.” Now I get it. I have two small children, and bringing them into the world is the most wildly optimistic thing I’ve ever done. When I'm lying awake at night, thinking about the day's most gruesome headlines, I need to remember what it felt like to sit there on my front steps, filled with a sense of cosmic possibility. I have no way of knowing what kind of world my children will find when they get ready to look for their own place in it. But when that time comes, I can only hope there’s an album like Green

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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