As the band prepares to go back into the studio to record their next full-length album, original members Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry (who departed following New Adventures) got together to look back at their early years.
Disc one is a compilation of tracks from their studio album encapsulating some of their most triumphant moments as a band. It starts with "Begin the Begin," a rocky powerhouse of an anthem from Life's Rich Pageant. The following tracks sum up R.E.M.'s first years perfectly: jangly guitars, mumbly singing and lyrical abstractions that not even Michael Stipe himself is always able to explain.
The last 10 tracks in part one take fans on a tour of R.E.M.'s more diverse offerings. "Can't Get There From Here" and "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" showcase the band's more manic energy, without leaving softer, philosophical gems like "Cuyahoga" and "Welcome to the Occupation" in the dust.
In an interesting move, the band included the moody classic "Feeling Gravity's Pull." While the song interrupts the flow of the album a bit, the lyrical content (the accompanying DVD takes its name from one line "When the light is mine") couldn't be more spot-on with the rest of the retrospective.
The most exciting inclusions on the album are most definitely "I Believe" and "Life and How to Live It," which are packaged on the album one after another in a one-two punch of Southern philosophizing that has me convinced that Georgia may be a very cool place to live.
After being thoroughly reminded of why we love R.E.M., the second disc invites listeners to get cozy and dig deeper into the band's catalog. The last half starts with Mills and Berry's picks for favorite song of the IRS years. Mills chose "Pilgrimage," a slightly disorienting piece with flowing vocals and pleasant, if a little confusing, lyrical content. Its a phenomenal starting place for the second disc, as "Pilgrimage" is often shunted aside for not fitting with the band's early sound (the bass in the song is very heavy, and the guitar doesn't even jangle). Berry's pick was "These Days," a dark but hopeful number that captures the edgy, uncomfortable and politically charged feeling of Life's Rich Pageant.
The boys dug deep into the attic to get songs for this album. It includes a fair amount of recordings which haven't seen the public, but have instead been buried under God-knows-what for about 20 years. One such track is a slow version of "Gardening At Night," a cast-off version from the band's debut E.P. Slowing the tempo down to a crawl really brings out what a pretty song "Gardening" is and reframes the message of the lyrics, giving a sad feel to what is essentially a goofy kind of song.
Other previously unreleased tracks include Hib-Tone and differently mixed versions of familiar songs, as well as "Theme From Two Steps Onward" and "Mystery To Me," two songs that were unheard of by most of R.E.M.'s fan base.
The real treats on disc two are all the live songs. As one of the best live bands in the world, R.E.M. has always been forward about bringing their shows to the fans with DVDs and copious B-sides. But hearing the live version of "Ages of You" leads listeners to question why on earth R.E.M. has never released an entire live album.
The album closes with Buck and Stipe's picks for favorite IRS-era songs. Buck chose the Springsteen-like "Disturbance at the Heron House," and Stipe chose "Time After Tim (AnnElise)," a song rumored to be inspired by Mills' penchant for climbing water towers naked. Whatever the true inspiration for the song, it's a bittersweet closer to an album that covers the best years of one of the most influential alternative rock bands in the genre's history, and seems to be a wink to the listener Stipe knows fans come back to the IRS albums time after time, year after year, and he appreciates them for it.