Review: R.E.M. – Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions

rem-unplugged

R.E.M.’s fourth album ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ was released a staggering 28 years today. To mark the album outliving many rock icons, David J. Lownds revisits the legendary band’s Record Store Day release ‘Unplugged…’ from earlier this year.

R.E.M. ‘Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions‘ is far from perfect. For a start, the ratio of style to substance is unreasonably balanced in favour of style. This is seen in Michael Stipe’s lyrics, which are at times hindered by the apparently ridiculous and the arguably plain lazy. Further problems include the lack of a ‘proper’ rock drum kit for which a small set of African percussion is no real substitute; the similarity of ‘Swan Swan H’ to opener of the first set ‘Half a World Away’, the absence of a bass line on one version of ‘Losing My Religion’ and a lack of strings or brass.

Why, then, should anyone except for fanatical R.E.M. fans and completists listen to this acoustic double album, or even read this review? “The collection has many issues,” one might object, “and besides, it was released months ago”. But wait! Don’t go! There are many reasons why this album is good, even among its inferior elements.

The seemingly impenetrable wall of enigma that is Stipe’s poetry sometimes prevents the lyrics from being as great as they could be, but it sometimes makes them better.  Although Stipe’s lyrics aren’t always great, they are at times sublime. At least some vocal harmonies here sound inferior to their respective recorded counterparts, and the delivery of ‘The One I Love’ sounds so mellow it could easily be viewed as unenthusiastic compared to the haunting version from ‘Document‘, but the singing on ‘I’ve Been High’ and the spectacle of words dancing around each other on ‘Fall On Me’ are excellent.

The lyrics and vocals are not the only areas in which highlights are to be found. Keys play a large role in making the 2001 show so special – the piano on ‘So. Central Rain’ and ‘One I Love’ adds beauty but across the two performances it is Peter Buck’s skilful use of mandolin, guitar and banjo that takes the crown. In addition to these positives come the moods created by instruments working together, especially on the unsettling ‘Fretless’.

So then, it is clear that this album is better than average. It has many redeeming features, even though there is still much room for improvement, and that is why it is worth reviewing, even at this late stage in the recordings’ existence. Good music never dies, even if the band which creates it ceases to exist as a presently creative collective.

David J. Lownds
David J. Lownds is an aspiring author and philosopher who also writes for Muso’s Guide, Far Out Magazine and his own blog (davidjlownds.wordpress.com). He listens to almost every style of music from jazz to grunge to underground hip-hop, and is learning to play bass and acoustic guitar. CURRENTLY LISTENING TO: Libertines, Green Day, John Frusciante, Arctic Monkeys SPECIALIST SUBJECT: The life and work of Dave Grohl, and Anthony Kiedis.

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