Picks and Pans Review: Green

updated 01/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST


Make yourself a mystery and people will be fascinated with you. This social tactic, employed by everyone from Andy Warhol to Jackie O, also applied in some degree to the first four albums by the Georgia-based folk-rock band R.E.M. Lead singer Michael Stipe intoned what sounded like complex lyrics—especially when he mumbled and allowed the band to overpower his voice, making it impossible to discern more than a word here and there. Some people assumed that brilliance or at least a valid message must lurk under all that murkiness. Now with Green, R.E.M. can be examined more closely, and the result is surprisingly close to what the optimists predicted. Not only does Green contain a heaping dose of appealing pop melodies, but each word stands out clearly and fits into phrases that actually make sense. "It's high time I razed the walls that I've constructed," sings Stipe in World Leader Pretend, a pensive number that seems to signal his intention to drop some of the band's studied aloofness. R.E.M. seems intent too on baring emotions previously lost in the muddle. In You Are the Everything, a song about escaping life's travails, Stipe's voice cracks with pain as he sings, "I'm very scared for this world/I'm very scared for me." The band takes a lighter approach to social responsibility in the rollicking Stand, which encourages listeners to take a stand about the state of their surroundings. Pop Song '89 lampoons the message of the Doors' swaggering 1968 song Hello, I Love You, creating an apt update for the uncertain '80s: "Hello/I'm sorry/I lost myself/I think I thought you were somebody else." By dropping some of the old armor, R.E.M. gets more vulnerable too: A few lyrics fall flat or sound like hippy-dippy cornball. But the flaws don't undermine the band's charm or the unexpected humility of songs such as Hairshirt, in which Stipe sings, "Run a carbon black test on my jaw/And you will find it's all been said before." He shouldn't worry. Though R.E.M. attacks some subjects that are a lot older than rock music, this band still has the brains to discover a new twist or two. (Warner Bros.)

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