Millions mourned this past week when R.E.M. announced, via their website, that they were "call[ing] it a day as a band." On social media and in print, fans and critics immediately began debating which songs and albums represented their best work. I will leave that for another article; instead, I'd like to pay tribute by focusing on one of their least known albums, Dead Letter Office.
Their last album before R.E.M. climbed the charts with their breakthrough work Document, 1987's Dead Letter Office compiles B-sides and rarities from their days with the I.R.S. label. From Document on, R.E.M.'s work grew even more polished; here, the band sounds looser, playfully covering Roger Miller's "King of the Road" alongside Lou Reed and Aerosmith classics. It shows how many musical forms combined to form the group's sound, and that they simply enjoyed performing together.
Kicking off with "Crazy" (not the Willie Nelson/Patsy Cline ballad), the jangling guitars and R.E.M.'s impressive harmonies, with other voices weaving in and out of Michael Stipe's lead vocal, add to the song's air of mystery. The catchy chorus stays with the listener long after playing the album: "'Cause your head's shaking cause your arms are shaking/ And your feet are shaking 'cause the earth is shaking." Next the band tackles "There She Goes Again," a Reed-penned track first released as a Velvet Underground song in 1967. Stipe's gentle vocals stress the song's inherent '60s pop qualities, with Peter Buck's acoustic guitar solo lending just a hint of folk to the proceedings. They further mine '60s pop with "Burning Down," a Byrds-esque tune with its close harmonies and ringing guitars.
Other standouts include "Burning Hell," with Stipe showing off his skills as an actor as well as singer. "You can burn in hell," Snipe snarls as Buck and Mike Mills jam on screeching guitars. Paying tribute to rock heroes Aerosmith, R.E.M. also covers "Toys in the Attic," with Buck playing a straight-ahead, pedal-to-the-medal solo. Proving they can rock just as hard as any other band, they simply soar with Bill Berry's relentless, full-throttle drumming. "Windout" certainly proves their affinity for pure rock and roll but also for punk, limiting the track to a Ramones-like two minutes.
In addition to rock, R.E.M. held a soft spot for country, evident in their cover of Reed's "Pale Blue Eyes." "I thought of you as my mountain top/ I thought of you as my peak" Stipe virtually draws, Buck's arpeggio adding a distinctively western flair to the Velvet Underground song. Country rears its head again on a sloppy yet charming version of Miller's "King of the Road." Stipe sings it in a straightforward manner, soundly oddly authentic and clearly affectionate toward the oldie. Buck's arpeggio style returns on yet another Reed cover, "Femme Fatale," with Stipe altering his voice to a gentle murmur. While the lyrics seem tough when simply read ("Here she comes/ You better watch your step"), Stipe's unique performance renders the words as a lament.