Sure, R.E.M went on to become a pretty big band, but I’ve always thought their first EP contains some of their best work. I hadn’t listened to these songs for a long time, but a fairly recent interview with Tucker Martine on All Songs Considered put me back in the mood and I dug up my copy of Dead Letter Office.
All the elements that would propel the band first to the top of the college charts and then onward and upward to the real big time when they signed with Warner Brothers (the first time, back in 1988 and then again, for like $80 million, in 1996) are pretty much fully formed: Peter Buck’s signature urgent, jangly guitar tone, Stipe’s mumbly and oblique lyrics, Mike Mills’s thoughtful – even occasionally playful – bass lines, and Bill Berry’s masterful fills would serve the band well up to the release of Document; and that’s partially what’s so wild about this record: the point of view comes across so complete, so… so wholly developed that the only other debut recording I can draw a comparison to is that of another jangly-toned guitar player and enigmatic front man.
The first two tracks have always been favorites of mine with Stumble edging out Wolves, Lower as a song I can listen to over, and over, and over again – and they’re both overlong, which is something I absolutely love about them. Mitch Easter‘s ahead-of-their time production techniques (weird sound-scape breakdowns with almost Native Americany undertones) and the insistent mystery these songs evoke make them endlessly re-playable pieces of pop music – even with the advent of online lyric databases, the meaning of these songs still eludes me.
The images below/after the jump harken back to a special time when buttoning your top button was totally de rigueur.