Leave it to Bill Berry to sum up R.E.M.'s feelings. In the early 90's (coincidentally when this album went gold) he claimed that this album "sucked." This is definitely not one of the band's favorite efforts, but it is one of mine. There's something about the tonal change of the band, the orchestration and dark sounds and themes, that is appealing and which has the power to transport the listener to another place.
Michael Stipe abandons a lot of the nonsensical ramblings of the past and turns to more of a narrative form of songwriting. He summons up a lot of the characters he knows from the American south and from the extensive travelling the band had done over five years. He isn't much easier to understand at times and thankfully his love of language and turns of phrase are still present, but now the band can present stories--or fables if you will. It is unclear whether the band meant for this to be a 'concept' album or if it just fell together that way.
The mood of the recordings was not great. They abandoned their comfort zone of Easter and Dixon and Charlotte, NC to change up the monotonous pace. The way things came together was not ideal and the album is patchy. When they first opted for a new producer, Joe Boyd was at the top of the list having worked with Nick Drake, and Buck the ever astute music lover was salivating. R.E.M. was a critically acclaimed band, why not enlist the talents of a critically acclaimed producer? The problem however was timing.
When Boyd was first brought up, everyone was on board, but the schedules didn't line up. The band were looking at some other options when Boyd's schedule opened up. The bad news? The boys had to record in winter in London. At first this seemed like a fun idea. But, they were put up in rooms far from the studio and with all the bad weather there was no desire to get out except to museums. Man-Ray exhibition anyone? Plus, the band didn't really have a lot of material going in which created a frenzy of songwriting just before the trip to studio.
That said, these are not excuses as the album is quite wonderful. 'Feeling Gravitys Pull' is perhaps the most appropriate opening song to any album ever, it sets the perfect tone for the dark discordant album that follows. Another plus to this album is that it rocks. The amps are turned up and Peter Buck starts to take the lead. He is front and center on all the tracks and it gives the band a substantial addition to their touring repertoire. However, the songs are so different they stand out from their early material ... they are simply out of time and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The group has said that this recording session made them evaluate whether they wanted to keep making music for a living, particularly together. But as Peter is fond of saying--and I paraphrase--at the end of the day, even the worst day making music is better than the best day waiting tables.
First up Feeling Gravitys Pull ...