There was a brief moment, at the end of the 1980s, when world peace didn’t seem like such a crazy idea. That was the early-spring thaw of the Cold War, a time of glasnost and perestroika. Presidents were signing treaties; thousands of nuclear weapons were about to be destroyed. It was during that season of global change, in November 1988, that R.E.M. came out with the album Green.
Green isn’t the kind of record that shows up on best-of-all-time lists, and I’ve never understood why. When critics mention it at all, they describe it as a kind of messy musical experiment. Green was R.E.M.’s first major-label album, and the band members took the opportunity to break away from their signature Rickenbacker jangle. As drummer Bill Berry put it at the time, “We discovered a whole new songwriting technique: Grab an instrument you don’t know how to play and fool around on it till it sounds right.” So the drummer played bass and the bassist played accordion. The guitarist sat behind the drum kit and picked up the mandolin.
All of that gave the album a bright, original sound, but that’s not what made it so extraordinary. It was what the songs were actually about. “I decided that this had to be a record that was incredibly uplifting,” Stipe told Rolling Stone back then. “Not necessarily happy, but a record that was uplifting to offset the store-bought cynicism and easy condemnation of the world we’re living in now.”
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