R.E.M. are a perfect example of a band rising from obscurity to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world through sheer hard work and talent. Their critical and creative peak came in 1992 with the release of Automatic For The People, 11 years after their first release. It’s a complete contrast from today’s record company attitude of “two flop singles and you’re dropped”.
In Time is a collection of the best moments from R.E.M.’s deal with Warner Bros records (so no The One I Love or It’s The End Of The World) and has a smattering of tracks from each album from 1988’s Green through to 2001’s Reveal, with a few unreleased songs and movie soundtrack highlights in between.
The songs here are in no chronological running order and there’ll be the usual bickering from fans about their favourite tracks missing – there’s no Country Feedback, Drive or Find The River, but thankfully no Shiny Happy People either, which could be the band’s most irritating song of their career. On the upside though, R.E.M. have produced some beautiful, uplifting music in their time which makes any “best of” essential listening.
In fact, the running order of In Time will prove the main bugbear with people. For instance, Losing My Religion is followed by the strange and avant-garde E-Bow The Letter which may prove jarring for some. However, if it really bothers you that much, hit the “re-program” button on your CD player.
The album kicks off with Man On The Moon, one of the band’s best known moments, and is cleverly followed by The Great Beyond (from the Man On The Moon soundtrack). This is one of R.E.M.’s most commercial moments, although the lyrics are a masterclass in Michael Stipe’s brand of surrealism (“I’m pushing an elephant up the stairs” for instance).
As well as four songs from the now classic Automatic, we also get a chance to re-appraise some of the band’s less received albums, such as Up and New Adventures In Hi-Fi. The latter is actually one of the most interesting that R.E.M. have recorded, and is represented by the very odd E-Bow The Letter and the more traditional piano ballad, Electrolite. Up is also better than remembered, with The Beach Boys-alike At My Most Beautiful a particular highlight.
It’s the Automatic tracks that stand up most impressively though. Over a decade after its release, both Nightswimming and Everybody Hurts still sound as sad, poignant and downright beautiful as they ever did. The more poppy The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight is also on here (and it’s still impossible to work out what Stipe is singing in the chorus).
As for the new songs, Bad Day is a storming, adrenaline rush of a song with Peter Buck’s guitar work sounding better than ever, and Animal is a straight-ahead rocker which stands up well amongst the classics here. The only weak point is the inclusion of the very average All The Right Friends from the Vanilla Sky soundtrack.
The hardcore R.E.M. fan will be bemused by the sequencing of the tracks on In Time and disappointed at some of the tracks that have been omitted here. However, in general, this is perfect for the person living in a cave for the last few years who’s never heard their music or just the casual observer who wants to explore their journey from underground sensation to international institution.