There are two primary sounds on R.E.M.’s fifth studio album, Document. One is the sound a beloved college-radio band emerging as a big-time mainstream rock group. The other is the sound of singer Michael Stipe going to war with the politics and economics of the 1980s. The first sound begins immediately, with Peter Buck’s massive, one-chord guitar riff to “Finest Worksong,” which hovers over the song like a colony of bees. It’s pure brawn, and a big change from R.E.M.’s start-up phase as arty folk-rockers. The effect is akin to a high school nerd who comes back to school in the fall with fearsome biceps. The second sound takes only a little longer to kick in. Stipe, who wrote most of R.E.M.’s lyrics, was an aesthete who used words to evoke a feeling, rather than describe it—and he showed an aversion to explicitness. On Document, released in 1987, he wanted to sing about the Reagan years, and that required him to be more direct. Stipe scattered clues throughout the album: Lines like “The time to rise has been engaged,” and “Enemy sighted, enemy met,” spur listeners to join the singer and act on their political beliefs. And Stipe adds satire and even comedy to the record, as in his description of yuppies who are “loyal to the Bank of America.” No one would mistake the album for a political pamphlet, and if you never heard Stipe mention that “Welcome to the Occupation” is about American interference in Central American politics—well, you probably wouldn’t surmise it. “Exhuming McCarthy” is more explicit in creating a historical link from the Red Scare of the 1950s to Ronald Reagan’s glorification of self-interest and wealth. Of course, no one is going to listen to coded political messages and critiques of capitalism if the music isn’t good, and Document is spring-loaded with memorable tunes—including the surprise hit “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” It’s a joyful track about contemplating doomsday, one that’s full of humor, from the song title’s parenthetical phrase to bassist Mike Mills’ background vocal (“It’s time I had some time alone”) to Stipe’s madcap, high-speed lyrics, which simulate the feeling of mass-media overload.

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