Reissue Review: R.E.M. The Best Of R.E.M. – In Time 1988–2003
The finest that Athens, Georgia, has to offer deserve a definitive career-spanning Best Of. Sadly, this isn’t it…
R.E.M.’s precipitous late-1980s ascent into the rock stratosphere was a charming, off-kilter pop miracle. They were the left-field college-rock band who went off and filled stadia: the nerdy outsiders who somehow got the girl and became the school cool kids.
Originally released on CD and very limited-edition vinyl in 2003, this compilation, now reissued on double vinyl, gathers key singles from 1988’s Green album through to 2001’s Reveal. It thus straddles both their golden days as a four-piece and the slow decline after drummer and co-songwriter Bill Berry quit in 1997.
It’s a curious collection which, like R.E.M. themselves, is alternately charming, idiosyncratic and oddly frustrating. Tracks are quixotically thrown together, as if the concept of chronology is bourgeois: 2001’s All The Way To Reno heads into Losing My Religion from a decade before, then it’s on to 1996’s thrumming E-Bow The Letter.
This back-and-forth across the years can be disorienting when the juxtapositions are too jarring. All The Right Friends, a contribution to 2001 movie Vanilla Sky, is a footnote, R.E.M.-by-rote from a fallow period: its failings are laid all the more bare by being followed by the aching Everybody Hurts.
Of course, when it works, when Michael Stipe’s spectral, tangential poetry and musings on mortality quiver atop Peter Buck’s celestial jangle, it is utterly wonderful. Twenty-seven years on, the giddy delirium of The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite thrills as infectiously as the first time you heard it: Stand is still a swig of sheer pop elixir.
All facets of prime R.E.M. are on show here, whether your bag is the yearning whimsy of Man On The Moon or the short-arm jabs to the solar plexus of 1994’s What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? when Buck took the band in a rockier direction on Monster. Both pale next to album closer Nightswimming, an existential wonder in itself.
The hit-and-miss tracklisting, though, will deter completists. Nothing here is dreadful, but there are glaring omissions: no Drive, no Crush With Eyeliner, no Radio Song. Also absent is the sparkle and shimmer of Shiny Happy People, which the band (i.e. the reliably snotty Stipe) came to disdain as “mere” bubblegum pop.
Sporadically glorious as it is, ultimately In Time is like listening to a random fan’s R.E.M. Spotify playlist on shuffle mode. To paraphrase the late, great Eric Morecambe: it’s most of the right songs, but not necessarily in the right order.
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