Release Date: May 19, 2014
Record label: Warner Bros.
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Jangle Pop, College Rock
When R.E.M. put a period on their career as a band in 2011, it didn’t take Einstein to figure out what would happen next: another sweep through the vaults for any potential anniversary-reissue bonus tracks or other overlooked material. One also doesn’t have to be a genius to deduce that most bands reconfigure and repackage their work for three main reasons: contract fulfillment, revenue and/or ego.
Excluding the release as a limited box set for Record Store Day this year (colour yourself annoyed if you bought a copy for £150 on eBay), this is the first time REM’s duo of MTV Unplugged sessions have been made available. Every big band seemed to “do” an Unplugged in the late 80s/early 90s – perhaps to try and distance themselves from their own material, or show diversity and be taken more seriously as “artists”. The opposite could, however, be said of REM in 1991 – as an unexpected cover of Love Is All Around attests.
No band but Nirvana made more breathtakingly transformative use of MTV Unplugged than R.E.M., the only act to headline the show twice. This set of 33 songs, 11 of which never aired, revisits both sessions, boiling their magical greatness down to two base elements: achingly sugared melodies and Michael Stipe's potent voice, in all its deep grain, swooning vibrato and radiant empathy. The '91 sessions came just as the semi-acoustic Out of Time was taking R.E.M.
Originally released as a quadruple-vinyl Record Store Day exclusive then later a double-CD set, Complete Unplugged Sessions captures two separate acoustic shows from R. E. M.
Though the person who invented MTV Unplugged is owed at least a light thwack in the genitals for inspiring Radio 1’s execrable Live Lounge, the show was, ultimately, one of the classier things about the channel in its pomp – a fair few of the acoustic concerts staged under its auspices were very good, with Nirvana’s contribution pretty much validating the series in and of itself. So I was a little sad to note while, er, ‘researching’ this review that Unplugged has now been relegated to a very occasional online thing - which I suppose is inevitable given MTV doesn’t really play music anymore, but still, I’d vaguely hoped all my favourite indie-rock bands had been doing Unplugged shows, only I hadn’t noticed. One of the few bands to appear twice were R.
For people who are wondering if this item is worth their hard-earned cash or valuable space on their hard-drive, I’ll just say that I might prefer this version of “Perfect Circle” to the original, which was, as you probably already know, perfect to begin with. An organ replaces the guitar and bongos replace the echoing drums, and R.E.M. from the 1990s being R.E.M.
There was a time in the early '90s when R.E.M. could confidently call itself the biggest band in the world. The run of Out of Time and Automatic for the People shifted units by the bucket load, while Michael Stipe was the unwavering voice of the ordinary man; a Bono without the complications of actually being Bono. .