Document is the fifth album by the pop/rock group R.E.M. and is probably the one that launched them into the spotlight. Released in 1987, it features the well-known Its the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine), as well as the top ten single The One I Love. As a result of the success of this album, it would turn out to be their final disc on the independent I.R.S. record label; they would sign with Warner Bros. in 1988.
This album is really strong from beginning to end. It varies pop and rock styles, none more clear than the differences between the driven Its the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) and the very mellow The One I Love. The album covers a lot of themes, including capitalism, government, love, and the nature of freedom itself. It is unquestionably one of R.E.M.'s better albums; some of the non-single tracks are absolutely fantastic (Exhuming McCarthy comes to mind).
As with most of their other discs, this album was produced by Scott Litt and R.E.M. and every song was written by R.E.M. It totals thirty nine minutes and forty six seconds in length over eleven tracks.
The album opens with Finest Worksong (3:48), a strong rock song about revolt. I take the song to be about workers striking, and in fact I have heard it played at worker's strikes, but there is plenty of ambivalence in the lyrics to allow one to make up his or her own mind. It has a very strong "arena rock" feel to it as it sounds constructed to come off well in a large stadium. It is very strong way to open the album.
Welcome to the Occupation (2:48) is a song about how a government has taken over a nation, a government that the singer disagrees with. This album's major theme is dissatisfaction with many elements of America, and this rather mellow tune is a strong example of the theme. It seems as though Michael Stipe is singing that the current US government is being oppressive, using some of the stronger connotations of occupation to get the idea across.
The third track is perhaps my favorite R.E.M. track of all. Exhuming McCarthy (3:19) is a rollicking number with horns and a catchy beat. The song is about capitalism, at least in the form it takes in the United States, and how the result of the matter is that unless you are a "businessman" or born into a rich family, you are forced into the middle or lower classes. The jazzy feel of the song and the wonderful chorus "You're sharpening stones/walking on coals/until you prove your business acumen" come together to make one truly great song. The song's title (and some samples) refer to Joseph McCarthy and his famous 1950's campaign against communism in the United States.
Disturbance at the Heron House (3:33) is about a political rally that has everyone up in arms at the huge turnout, but in the end the organizers realize that the people only turned out to eat and then go home; much of the crowd is just there to fill their bellies. The song's main musical feature is the guitarwork, which helps build this song into more than a sum of its parts.
Strange (2:32) is a pretty generic song and is perhaps the low point on the album, although the music is very catchy and upbeat. The lyrics are just repeated lines about how there is something unusual happening, but there's no elaboration, just repetition. Thankfully, this is one of the shortest tracks on the album; it's definitely filler. It's followed, though, by a killer one-two punch.
Its The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) (4:07) has been used so many times in so many films and other pop cultural fashions that it's well known to pretty much everyone. I think the song has much the same concept as Billy Joel's We Didn't Start The Fire, but draws a different, more pessimistic conclusion that things are on a downhill slide. The message is a nice contrast to the percussion-driven rock music that fills the song. It's safe, probably, to call this one a modern classic.
The band's first major hit, though, was the achingly simple The One I Love (3:17), about leaving behind a trail of broken hearts after using them as emotional crutches. Few songs as simple and mellow as this one are able to come off so gorgeously well; it is precisely that reason why this was R.E.M.'s breakthrough song.
Fireplace (3:24) is a mellow song that sounds as though it would fit greatly on their later album Automatic for the People. What exactly the song is about is pretty interpretive, but I take it to be about getting fed up with the boring, menial tasks of everyday life. The mellow sound hides a guitar just under the surface that sounds as though it is literally begging to explode out, but is somehow constrained. Another strong track on an album full of them.
The ninth track is Lightnin' Hopkins (3:18), an interesting track if for nothing else than the chanting and Michael Stipe's odd vocals. The lyrics seem to be about the weird things one finds on the wrong side of the tracks, but as with many songs, it's all interpretive. The song drives along steadily with some subtle but nice work on the bass.
King of Birds (4:07) is a mellow track about the difficulties of coming up with new ideas and progress. It's standard R.E.M. fare, though the backing vocals throughout much of the song adds a nice touch, dropping away almost perfectly where it seems as though it should. Very pleasant but unsurprising music, and could probably be called filler on an album of this strength.
Oddfellows Local 151 (5:21) closes out the album with its longest track. It drives along lazily, about a man named Peewee who seems to be some sort of sideway preacher of ideas; as usual, though, the lyrics have plenty of ambivalence to let you draw your own conclusions. The music slowly fades to black at the end, closing out the group's breakthrough album.
As with the breakthrough albums of many great bands (The Beatles with Rubber Soul; U2 with The Unforgettable Fire, and so forth), this album is unquestionably a strong one, with some truly amazing tracks in there. If you only know of R.E.M.'s later mainstream stuff, such as Automatic For The People or Monster, this is a great place to start to hear what their earlier sound was like. This is definitely one of the classic albums of the 1980s.