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.
R.E.M. is also well known for their quirkiness, and “Voice of Harold” perfectly illustrates that trait. Who else could read the liner notes from a gospel album (The Joy of Knowing Jesus by the Revelaires) over the backing track to Reckoning’s “Seven Chinese Brothers”? “The pure tenor quality of the voice of Harold Montgomery gives a special interpretation to the grand old hymn ‘The Old Rugged Cross,'” Stipe half sings/half speaks over the familiar melody. As strange as this sounds, Stipe’s vocal interpretation of the liner notes oddly works. To paraphrase the old cliché, someone can be so talented that “he could sing the phone book and make it sound great.” Perhaps “Voice of Harold” proves that to be the case for the Athens band.
Originally issued as a 15-track album, the later version of Dead Letter Office now contains all songs from R.E.M.’s 1982 EP Chronic Town. As of now, Chronic Town is available only on the Dead Letter Office collection; for that reason, the latter album is a must-own. “Wolves, Lower” stands as vintage R.E.M., complete with Stipe’s slurred vocals, Buck’s jangly guitars, and Mills’ exquisite backing harmonies. “Gardening at Night” ranks among the group’s most underrated songs, an uptempo track like “Can’t Get There from Here” in its catchiness. Berry’s steady drumming, the band’s harmonies, and some precise, tight electric guitars enliven “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars),” another criminally overlooked work.
Released just before R.E.M. graduated to arenas, expensive MTV videos, and massive sales, Dead Letter Office represents more than just a compilation of so-called “throwaway” singles. It showcases the band at their early best, a distinctive group that combined superior musicianship, a gifted front man, and sometimes eccentric lyrics to forge their own path. By all means, reminisce about the greatness of Murmur, Out of Time, or Automatic for the People. But do not overlook this hidden gem in the R.E.M. catalog that shows why this legendary band will be greatly missed.
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