Elitist hipster-critic types always prefer the early stuff, the blurry, spiky, private-passion stuff, but I’m going to say it anyway: For all the grave emotional eloquence of their maturity, and the great feats of artist-to-audience heart connection that they achieved with songs like “Everybody Hurts” and “Losing My Religion,” it’s primitive R.E.M. that we’re missing most keenly today—the first three albums, the first four or five years, before the masses got a sniff of their angular jangle.
The mainstreaming of R.E.M. (which started, roughly, with 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant) was triumphant; they broadened, they adapted, they stepped up, they opened their arms. They did everything art is supposed to do when it meets the world and consents to be changed by it. From blanket rock to stadium rock, with no loss of vision. But Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, those days and nights of subliminal lyrics and ragged Byrdsian chime, when Michael Stipe was an antic, entranced new-wave dancer in hobo shoes, clutching at the cuffs of his too-long sleeves, and his voice sounded like something coming out of a split tree—that’s the music, those are the images, as we sweat today under a tyranny of obviousness, that ring and resonate with the poignancy of a lost America.
The occasion for these ruminations? The release this month of R.E.M. at the BBC: a 104-song anthology of material recorded in England from 1984 to 2008, nearly the entire span of the band’s career. (R.E.M. formed in 1980 and dissolved without fuss in 2011.) Featuring radio sessions plugged and unplugged and broadcasts from stinky clubs, church halls, clanging cement bowls, and days-long rock festivals, it functions as both a live album (or several live albums) and a vast and slightly dizzying retrospective. All the band’s epochs are represented, from a performance of “Radio Free Europe” (the debut single, still mysteriously and illegibly stirring, like the national anthem of the place between waking and sleeping), to the mid-period majesty of “Finest Worksong” (R.E.M. in their alt-rock pomp), to the global knockout of “Everybody Hurts,” to the more diffuse energies of the later work. (If that sounds euphemistic, it is: The five albums R.E.M. made after the departure of the drummer Bill Berry in 1997 have, for me, a glittering and insubstantial pallor.) Completists will be tickled: If you need five live versions of “Man on the Moon,” here they are. It’s a wonderful song, a species of dadaist lullaby, rotating strangely and serenely around the wrestling career of Andy Kaufman and including the lovely Wallace Stevens–y line “Here’s a truck stop instead of St. Peter’s,” but maybe three versions are enough.
The centerpiece, though—the core of this massive set—is a show recorded at Nottingham’s Rock City in 1984. “Hi! Pete Drummond here!” booms the DJ with horrendous joviality, introducing “those boys from Athens, Georgia!” Then it’s early R.E.M. in excelsis: seething momentum, cascading guitar arpeggios, power-pop punch in the arrangements, and words that have the intermittent uncanny lucidity of sleep talk (“These rivers of suggestion are driving me away”). It’s impossible to put this next to, for example, the wheezily rustic version of “World Leader Pretend” from 1991, with its clunky bongos and grown-up lyrics—“I’ve a rich understanding of my finest defenses”—and not conclude that there has been a slowdown or a dilution of force. Energy changes, of course: They couldn’t play this fast and, with this special kind of muscular modesty, forever. And slow can be beautiful—the cello-haunted masterpiece Automatic for the People was still to come. But the band onstage at Rock City seems to be in possession of secrets, personal and historical. “Not everyone can carry the weight of the world,” groans Stipe, compassionate wood-wizard, in “Talk About the Passion.” And then, like an omen, the tolling guitar line and foreboding Americana of “Driver 8”: “And the train conductor says / … / Driver 8, take a break / We’ve been on this shift too long / … / Driver 8, take a break / We can reach our destination / But we’re still a ways away.”