R.E.M. R.E.M. at the BBC
Published Nov 01, 2018By the early '90s, R.E.M. were one of the biggest bands in the world. Yet, even as 1991's Out of Time and 1992's Automatic For the People racked up multi-platinum sales, the Athens, GA quartet opted to stay home, only supporting the albums with a handful of promotional performances.
One such set — recorded in March 1991, the day after Out of Time was released — opens this sprawling new eight-CD plus DVD set and offers a rare window on the band during this period.
Those six songs, five originals, including outtake "Fretless" and a cover of the Troggs "Love Is All Around" (aka the song Bill Nighy's character Christmas-izes in the film Love Actually), are an easy highlight of the collection, which, as its title implies, collects a litany of recordings the band did for the BBC from across their career.
Yet it doubles as a history of R.E.M.'s relationship with British audiences, who were slower to embrace the band, but held on far longer than their North American counterparts. As such, their '80s indie years are signposted by a single gig at Rock City in Nottingham from 1984. Meanwhile, performances from the post-Bill Berry years, which even diehards would not describe as the band's best work, make up the bulk of this set.
The first two discs bring together various live in-studio performances, including the aforementioned one from 1991. Essentially promotional spots, they're heavy on singles and then-current album tracks, though they do cover "Munich" by Editors during a 2008 broadcast, and drop "Perfect Circle," a Murmur deep cut, into a 1998 "Peel Session."
The rest of the collection is made up of three live performances, from 1995 (from their massive and raucous Monster tour), 1999 (from Glastonbury, circa Up) and 2004 (circa Around the Sun) respectively. With the exception of multiple performances of "Losing My Religion" and "Man on the Moon," there is surprisingly little overlap across the collection.
The final disc in particular, recorded at St. James' Church in London, eschews hits for the more sombre tone of Around the Sun, a record that's generally regarded as the band's nadir. Yet here, the songs come alive, rescuing them from the lifeless production of their studio counterparts. Most notably, their performance of "E-Bow the Letter" features Radiohead's Thom Yorke on vocals, filling in for the absent Patti Smith.
R.E.M. didn't officially release a live album until 2007, but have been on something of a tear lately, adding era-specific live sets to each of their studio albums as they're reissued. Though the material included here is strong, due to the limitations its compilers were working with — whatever the BBC had in its archives — it doesn't necessarily represent the best or most unique sets of their respective eras.
Still, it paints a slightly alternative picture of the band's career, one where Up, Reveal and Around the Sun weren't greeted as tepid failures from an over-the-hill band. Freed from the studio sheen that bogged down much of the material in the post-Berry years, the songs are given the room they need to breathe, and make a case for R.E.M.'s second act being filled with overlooked gems. (Craft Recordings)