In some ways, after the move to Warner Bros, it was a case of much the same for R.E.M: their first album after leaving I.R.S. was produced by Scott Litt, just as their last album for the label had been; lyrical preoccupations (when present) were similar - protest, action, ecology; the album mixes and matches its eclectic sounds - rock is not afraid to mingle with acoustic.
And yet there are differences. You don’t just sign for a major label and expect nothing to change. Indeed, the band had wanted for and pushed changes. They wanted better overseas distribution, feeling let down by I.R.S. on that front. They wanted the reach and audience they felt they deserved, while keeping the creative autonomy they insisted upon. Warner Bros offered them everything they wanted, everything they needed. It was a new beginning. To put it another way:
Green had so many connections to Murmur. It was very much at the back of my head the whole time we were working on it. From the album cover to the topics of the songs and the way the songs were carried out, to me, there’s a great connection there. Signing to a new record label was a new start for us.
(Michael Stipe, talking to David Buckley)
A new start. A chance to try something new, to be something new. So it is we have R.E.M.’s total football moment: band members’ choice when it came to instrumentation - Bill Berry on bass for one track, Peter Buck with the mandolin, Mike Mills on keyboard. We have silliness, Pop Song ‘89 and Stand playing games with notions of authenticity and seriousness vs frothy chart-craving singles, a logical endpoint for which we will call Shiny Happy People.
Clearly, with the big pop songs on the album on heavy rotation, R.E.M. had sold out. The independent-thinking alternativistas had smelled the money and had their heads turned. Except at the same time, R.E.M. had clearly not sold out: I Remember California is very much at the opposite end of any number of scales from Get Up - it’s the gloomiest, darkest that R.E.M had got; Orange Crush takes its serious subject very seriously; The mandolin-moments are heartfelt, but sincerely so.
If there’s a criticism of Green it’s perhaps that it tries too hard to be both silly and serious, both throwaway and meaningful. The original plan for the album had actually been to make an album of two halves: one half electric, the other acoustic. Not enough acoustic songs came out of the recording sessions, so that idea was shelved, and instead the acoustic numbers were scattered across the album. The result is an album that feels like its flip-flopping from one thing to another too often, distancing you as you try to relax into it.
At least the album goes out on a high. The very last track, track 11, sometimes known as Untitled, but correctly known as 11 stands somewhat alone There’s a little bit of mixing up going on, with Peter Buck filling in on drums after Bill Berry refused to play the track, but it plays out as a natural and honest call and response between Mills and Stipe: its simplicity is a welcome relief at the end of an eclectic album.