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Time the Revelator

 

R.E.M.: In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003

Warner Brothers, 2003

Rating: 4.4

 

 

Posted: November 30, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It goes without saying that "Best Of" albums rarely ever live up to their titles. How can they, when every listener's notion of a band's "best" work is different and wholly subjective? The alternative, though, is to label such a collection a "Greatest Hits" record, and while that works just fine for, say, Randy Travis, such a notion seems heretical for a band like R.E.M. Charting well isn't the point of what R.E.M. does, although it's certainly nice when one of the band's songs becomes a hit -- a pretty regular occurrence in the early '90s. R.E.M. has never aggressively courted the mainstream, which in one sense is why it's grown from attention-grabbing underground outfit to bona fide institution. Left to pursue its own muse, the band created such full and vibrant works that even straitjacketed radio sat up and took notice. The mainstream, it's important to note, came around to R.E.M., instead of the other way around.

Looking at In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 through this prism makes it much easier to appreciate this hybrid retrospective. In Time serves as an overview of the band's commercial successes during its tenure with the Warner label (to date, anyway), and at the same time as the band's own summation of its musical strengths and achievements during that period -- that the latter shares quite a bit of overlap with the former is a happy coincidence. (There are, of course, new songs and non-album tracks that neither stand among the best of the group's work nor can safely be called hits, but that's par for the course for "Best Of" albums these days.)

So we get four tracks from 1992's Automatic for the People, the point at which R.E.M.'s creative and commercial successes dovetailed perfectly; arguably, it spawned a large number of the group's most recognizable "hits" while also serving for many as the band's crowning artistic achievement. Heard outside the confines of either the melancholic Automatic or the distracting chatter of commercial radio, these four numbers -- "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite," "Nightswimming," "Everybody Hurts" and (of course) "Man on the Moon" -- easily earn their keep, revealing pleasures and nuances easy to miss or overlook in those aforementioned settings.

The same is true of most of these tracks, of course. Presented one at a time, outside their more familiar contexts, songs like "E-Bow the Letter" (from 1996's overlooked New Adventures in Hi-Fi) and "Imitation of Life" (easily dismissed as formulaic when it appeared on 2001's ethereal Reveal) acquire a renewed urgency. But some tracks suffer from this approach, too. "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" sounds no more interesting or tuneful than it did on 1994's lumbering Monster. And sometimes they suffer for reasons having nothing to do with quality: "Stand" and "Orange Crush," both agreeable tracks from 1988's Green, sound jarringly out of place; they just don't fit into the more mature aural phase the band entered into on 1991's breakthrough Out of Time.

(That album's meager presence is also a puzzler, although its lone representative, the once-ubiquitous "Losing My Religion," stands out here, again, outside of the context of that album's departures. "Shiny Happy People" is understandably excised -- the band reportedly hates it, and it's not indicative of the group's work. But still, Out of Time was an important album -- Automatic's artistic stretches couldn't have been attempted without it -- and ignoring it here is an odd choice.)

The non-album tracks, as mentioned, aren't exactly hits or creative peaks, but their presence isn't fatal: "The Great Beyond," from the soundtrack to the film Man on the Moon, is a pleasant enough number, as is "All The Right Friends" from the Vanilla Sky soundtrack. The two new numbers, "Bad Day" and "Animal," fare better: The former's jaunty rock melodicism and political commentary bear the whiff of "Been there, done that," but it's a nonetheless engaging tune, while "Animal" sounds like an experimental Monster outtake, riding on the strength of bassist Mike Mills' backing vocal and Michael Stipe's diffuse chant "It's calling me to work it out" at the tail end of the chorus.

A bonus disc of B-sides and rarities offers a few surprises among its live numbers and rough demos of album tracks. "Fretless" and "It's A Free World Baby," both outtakes from Out of Time, are keepers, as is an alternative version of Automatic's "Star Me Kitten" as gruffly read by William S. Burroughs. It's a mixed bag, of interest to completists but of marginal value to less-avid fans.

But if In Time occasionally falters, it's nonetheless a credible document of R.E.M.'s transition from rock outsiders to mature, revered artists. Its very release signals a kind of acceptance that the band's heyday may be behind it. But in revealing its moments of lucid, crystalline artistry, the album celebrates an impressive legacy that can still be heard in the group's more scattershot recent material, indicating that the fire hasn't completely dimmed and that there are still moments of grace yet to come.

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