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

Twenty-five years after the record's release, the world needs its dynamic optimism more than ever.
The band members at the time of Green. Left to right: Singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry (Bart Everly/Rhino Media)

There was a brief moment, at the end of the 1980s, when lots of people all over the world felt like peace might not be such a crazy idea. That was the early-spring thaw of the Cold War, a time of glasnost and perestroika. Presidents were signing treaties; thousands of nuclear weapons were about to be destroyed. It was during that season of global change, in November 1988, that R.E.M. came out with the album Green

Green isn’t the kind of record that shows up on best-of-all-time lists, and I’ve never understood why. When critics mention it at all, they describe it as a kind of messy musical experiment. Green was R.E.M.’s first major-label album, and the band members took the opportunity to break away from their signature Rickenbacker jangle. As drummer Bill Berry put it at the time, “We discovered a whole new songwriting technique: Grab an instrument you don't know how to play and fool around on it till it sounds right.” So the drummer played bass and the bassist played accordion. The guitarist sat behind the drum kit and picked up the mandolin.

All of that gave the album a bright, original sound, but that’s not what made it so extraordinary. It was what the songs were actually about. “I decided that this had to be a record that was incredibly uplifting,” Stipe told Rolling Stone back then. “Not necessarily happy, but a record that was uplifting to offset the store-bought cynicism and easy condemnation of the world we're living in now.”

For Stipe, the shorthand for that dynamic optimism was “green.” In 1988, that word still had pretty radical implications. There were no green office buildings or green Chevron ads, and most Americans had never heard of the Green Party. In a 1988 press kit interview called Should We Talk About the Weather?, Stipe tried to explain what “green” meant to him: “Obviously, there's the political overtones, which I think apply more now than ever before. And certainly, there's the kind of nature side—because you think of green and you think of trees. That's simple. And I think ‘green’ pretty much defines the band and where we are now. We're kind of starting over. And we're all very aware of that.”

***

When Green came out, I was in junior high school in a tiny town surrounded by cornfields in all directions. There was no Internet yet, and the nearest record store was an hour away, but my friends and I learned everything we needed to know about music from a late-night show called Postmodern MTV. We were partial to British New Wave bands like The Cure and Depeche Mode—it was good music for immersing yourself in teenage emotion, but not particularly helpful for figuring out your place in the world.

Then the video for “Stand” started showing up in regular rotation. R.E.M. has always cheerfully written off that song as a piece of “bubblegummy” pop. But the video was full of environmentalist symbolism: a globe, a bicycle, a hammer and nail. An old woman planted flowers and bundled up newspapers for recycling. With all that productive bustling going on, the words “Stand in the place where you live” seemed like a call to action, a new twist on “Think global, act local.”

What appealed to me most about the video was the buoyant energy of the band members themselves, leaping across the grass against a backdrop of autumn leaves. At the end, the camera lingered on Stipe as he tried to hide a smile behind his long, honey-colored hair. Whatever those guys were up to, I wanted to be part of it.  

That supercharged positivity ran through almost every song on Green. R.E.M.’s music had always been upbeat, but the two previous albums had taken on issues like air pollution, McCarthyism, and nuclear war. It wasn’t an encouraging picture. The world was still going to end, even if the band felt fine.

Green was entirely different. To make sure no one missed the album's message, Stipe did something he’d never done before: He printed the lyrics to one of the songs in the liner notes. “It's probably the most political song I've ever written, and at the same time, the most personal,” he explained in the 1988 press kit interview. “I think to be able to read ‘World Leader Pretend’ as well as listening to it will help clarify a lot of the intention behind Green.”

“World Leader Pretend” is a political song, but it isn’t a tirade against the Man. In fact, there is no Man. “I sit at my table, wage war on myself,” the song begins. The “world leader” is a single Self, divided in two parts. He’s on both sides of the battlefield; he fires the weapons and then recognizes them when they come at him. Just when the whole thing starts to seem the most futile, a set of powerful piano chords breaks through and Stipe sings: “This is my world and I am 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.”

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

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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