Nice to see the archives opening up for the late, great R.E.M., this double-disc featuring two complete MTV Unplugged shows, from 1991, and then 2001. A lot changed in that 10 year period for the group. The first time they were on, they were at the top, having just released the monster Out Of Time album, a #1 in several countries including Canada, England, and the U.S. Bill Berry was still drumming in the band, and their decline unthinkable. By 2001, the sales and interest decline had begun, Berry was retired, and the group was less interested in a big hit sound than in experimental beauty, as heard on the disc Reveal. Quick, name a track from Reveal! Actually, there are lots of fine ones (All The Way To Reno, Imitation Of Life, I'll Take The Rain), but R.E.M. had lost the connection with current listening habits.
The first set sees them truly unplugged, with Berry on bongos, and acoustic guitars all around. So stripped down, the band and Stipe show what fine stories are in these songs, long-hidden behind mixes and early mumbling vocals. Now, Stipe is up front, Mike Mills is singing his heart out on harmonies, and the group is shiny and happy (but they don't do that one). Early cut Fall On Me, which Stipe calls his favourite R.E.M. number, has a majesty in this form that is spine-tingling, and when Losing My Religion comes around, you hear a band at its peak, the mandolin riff one for the ages.
That number is the only one repeated on the second Unplugged show, as old faves are interspersed with the newer numbers. This will be the revelation to those who ignored the last decade of R.E.M.'s struggles. The more intricate arrangements in Daysleeper and Disappear point to a different band but prove equal to the classics Cuyahoga and So. Central Rain. Let the re-evaluating begin here.