REVIEW: REM: In Time: The Best of REM
REM: In Time: The Best of REM [1988-2003] [Warner, 2003]
Three words? mostly the best
Get fifteen REM fans in a closed room, and I guarantee that there will be a fight.
I'll spare you the violence's lurid details. Suffice it to say that it would be a bataille royale between the middle-aged fathers who bob their heads to "Man on the Moon" on the commute home, the sad-eyed kids who fall asleep to Automatic for the People, and every REM fan aged 28-40. This last group - which includes the majority of the music press - never forgave REM for forsaking the mumbling indie rock of Murmur and Reckoning; they are like disappointed fundamentalist parents who refuse to even acknowledge the gay Out of Time, let alone Up. To them, a "Best of REM" that begins after Document is a bona fide joke; 1988's Eponymous already covered the best of the band's career, regardless of the seven albums that have since been released.
I, however, am not a member of the Church of REM. While I agree with them on a few points - REM is an amazing band, Monster was a piece of shit, - we diverge when it comes to Up (the group's best album), "Shiny Happy People" (a delightfully silly tune), and REM's post-1988 output in general (it is very, very good). Eponymous lives in a shelf above my CD library proper, in a pile alongside Sloan's Between the Bridges, The Watchmen's Silent Radar, and Bela Fleck's double live album.
From my point of view, how could they fuck In Time up? Here, drawn from each of REM's 88-03 releases - as well as the Man on the Moon and Vanilla Sky soundtracks - are some of the finest pop-rock songs of the Nineties. REM is a band with immense versatility, lyrical dexterity and melodic might. The tracklist is superb - songs flow, contrast and surprise. Sure, I would have made some different selections - add "Drive," "New Test Leper," "Be Mine"... replace "Daysleeper" with the subtler "Why Not Smile," ditch "All the Way to Reno" (Reveal's not getting any better) and substitute "Lotus." But with a band as varied as REM, compromises are bound to happen. Man on the Moon's "Great Beyond" remains a joy - the starry synth bleeps delight me every time, - and while "Animal" leaves me with Monster-tinged skepticism, In Time's other new song, "Bad Day," is one of the best that REM has ever recorded. Originally written in the eighties, "Bad Day" cribs "End of the World"'s manic energy, reimagining it as fuel for a straight-up radio hit. The track is fiery and optimistic, spirited and musical - in short, it's REM.
From the familiar opening chords of "Man on the Moon" to the accelerated serenity of "Nightswimming"'s piano, In Time boasts a tracklist that flows from sweetness to sweetness - the gummy guitarline on "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" is like a lurch back into high-school, "At My Most Beautiful" is a starkissed lullabye. The tracks have been arranged with a careful ear: dislocated from chronology, they're set up to simply sound good. For those in pursuit of the band's mainstream successes - as well as those who want to sample much of REM's genuine "best" - In Time is everything it claims to be.