Picks and Pans Review: Document

updated 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST


R.E.M.'s music is like an intricately decorated room that is open to the public but hidden to all but a few who know how to get inside. This Georgia-based quartet consistently is named the most popular band on college campuses. Yet R.E.M. is vaguely known (if at all) by mainstream music fans because the band's records have been given their greatest airplay on a few weak-powered radio stations. An explanation for this paradox lies within the grooves of the band's fifth album, Document Compared with past R.E.M. records, this one seems conventional: Lead singer Michael Stipe doesn't mumble the lyrics as much as usual, and the jangling Byrds-style guitars that used to pervade almost every R.E.M. song have been replaced by tougher rock strumming. Even so, the music still comes across as an '80s update of folk, a style that appeals basically to college types. Stipe's earnest, seasoned voice makes R.E.M.'s new songs sound cerebral, and the fact that some lyrics are unintelligible just adds to the mystique. Ambitious listeners will want to put an ear to the speaker with the hope the words will all come together into some meaningful whole. Political unrest seems to be the undercurrent on Document. "You're sharpening stones/ Walking on coals/ To improve your business acumen," Stipe sings on Exhuming McCarthy, a song that sarcastically turns business success into a heroic deed. Fireplace, ostensibly about clearing out a room for a dance, might also be a sophisticated metaphor about preparing for a revolution. The One I Love may be the most straightforward love song that R.E.M. ever recorded, but it, too, contains an enigma. The climactic syllables are garbled. Beyond the music, college kids may find it easy to identify with R.E.M. The band members, who hang out in the college town of Athens, Ga., instead of some major media center, have the nerdy-cool look so big on a lot of campuses. Though Document brings R.E.M. closer to the musical mainstream, chances are it will end up as yet another college classic: This band's music still demands more thought than most people are willing to give. (I.R.S.)

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