It’s easy for us old school R.E.M. fans to dismiss the post-IRS Records era of the band. Those fabled times were unique in our music experience: Band comes out of nowhere – that is, Athens Georgia – and takes over the college radio airwaves, steadily builds a fanbase with their amazing records and compelling yet elusive videos (you had to look pretty hard to find them at first), and eventually signs to a major label. It’s also easy to say, “they were better before they sold out,” but of course, most of us also realize that R.E.M. didn’t actually do that, since their label switch was on their own terms. Still, I definitely prefer the albums up through Document over the Green-and-on elpees. I certainly didn’t stop buying their albums, though, but aside from Automatic for the People, I’d rate the post-1988 albums lower than those before that.
One listen to In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 tells you that Buck/Mills/Stipe(/Berry) & Co. didn’t really lose the plot – they just matured and morphed into a different monster. Their sonic palette got bigger, better, engulfing the scruffy, indie R.E.M. they once were. In this later personae the band gave us epics like “Man on the Moon,” “The Great Beyond” and “Everybody Hurts,” as well as burners like “Bad Day” and the absolutely gorgeous “At My Most Beautiful.” Even the band doesn’t quite know how to sum it all up; Peter Buck wrote the liner notes to each song and he himself is frequently unsure what the songs mean or where they came from. But one thing is sure: R.E.M. weren’t even close to finished having something to say when the ink on the Warner Bros. Records contract had dried.
In Time was first released in 2003, available in a few different formats (including vinyl), but the 2LP version was hard to find. It’s now been reissued by Craft Recordings in a standard double black vinyl version and a blue colored set offered exclusively by Barnes & Noble. The mastering job on this reissue was done well, and it’s nice to have the 18 songs spread over two records. But I do have a minor issue with B&N’s colored vinyl: the transparent blue could’ve been matched better to the color of the blue moon on the cover. It plays and sounds lush, though, so don’t pay too much attention to that part of my critique. The takeaway from this review is that R.E.M. were one of the great American bands of the ‘80s and In Time is the perfect summation of their latter days.
4/5 (Craft Recordings CR00166, 2003/2019)