R.E.M. were a quintessential Unplugged band: compact, sincere, writerly, they got loud enough for the unplugging to matter but never ventured far enough from the beaten path for it to matter that much. Like their friends 10,000 Maniacs, they double-dipped in MTV’s 90s bonanza, recording sets in 1991 and 2001—but unlike 10,000 Maniacs, they’ve never released an Unplugged album. On Record Store Day the now-defunct quartet-turned-trio opened the floodgates, dropping their complete Unplugged sessions in a four-record vinyl package that’s being released today in digital formats.
For some it was a bonanza—copies of the limited-edition vinyl set are already topping $200 on eBay—but for many, eight sides of R.E.M. unplugged will sound less appealing than eight sides of Metal Machine Music outtakes. If you already have an impression of R.E.M. as precious and pretentious, Michael Stipe won’t challenge your expectations when he opens the 2001 session by declaring, with a halting faux-naiveté, “The name of this band is R.E.M.”
The first set comes from R.E.M.’s commercial peak, between Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992). This was before the Unplugged series turned into a raucous romp through greatest hits (ahem, Rod Stewart) and eventually stopped even being acoustic at all (thanks to Bruce Springsteen, who went “plugged” with his post-E-Street band in one of the most disappointing decisions of his career), so R.E.M. honor the hushed original spirit of the series with a set that leans heavily on their quieter numbers. That makes this the less satisfying, and less interesting, half of the new Unplugged set: numbers like “Endgame” and “Belong” actually become less intimate, with an offhand feeling that might have felt dynamic in the moment but now feels a bit perfunctory. Stipe’s disingenuously hammy stage presence doesn’t help either; it’s one of the reasons R.E.M., despite being a great live band, never made great live records.
The second Unplugged set dates from a period when the band were struggling for continued relevance—even attention—despite making what the band themselves, as well as many fans (including me) felt were some of the strongest records of their career. Today’s 25-year-olds are young enough that they probably won’t remember hearing “Everybody Hurts” on the radio, so maybe we finally have a rising generation ready to re-approach Up (1998) and Reveal (2001) not as the work of dinosaurs crippled by the loss of founding drummer Bill Berry but as the fresh and challenging work of three pioneering musicians trying to reinvent themselves while also honoring their roots.
We shall see. At any rate, the unplugged format of the new release encourages a reappraisal of late(-ish) R.E.M. gems like the richly poignant “At My Most Beautiful” and the delicate “I’ve Been High.” This 2001 R.E.M. are clearly a band on a mission, with only a few well-chosen detours into their Berry-era catalog; those, of course, were kept for the edited version of the performance that made it to TV, but with this complete session we hear a band really stretching into their newest material, giving readings more close and compelling than the loose and raucous versions heard on R.E.M. Live (2007) or Live at the Olympia (2009). (A bonus for Bob Dylan fans: Stipe interpolates lyrics from “Like a Rolling Stone” into the 2001 version of “Country Feedback.”)
With the deliberate decision to release both Unplugged sets together, R.E.M. are making an argument that there’s clear connective tissue between themselves at their best-known and themselves ten years later; that in fact, their music might have gained depth and maturity at a time when it was being widely dismissed as a series of failed experiments. When you’re feeling open-minded, put R.E.M.’s Unplugged sessions on the turntable—or on the laptop—and decide for yourself. Whatever you do, though, don’t miss the 1991 session’s cover of the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around,” with Mike Mills on lead vocals and Stipe contributing the “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba”s in the background. To adapt a lyric from one of R.E.M.’s then-new songs, you need this.