R.E.M., ‘R.E.M. at the BBC': Album Review
In November 1984, seven months after R.E.M. released their second album Reckoning, the band played a show in Nottingham that was broadcast on the BBC. It was the start of a long and productive history with the British media company that carried on through the group's final years.
That relationship is compiled and explored on R.E.M. at the BBC, an eight-CD/one-DVD box set that plays out like a musical history of the American band and its evolution from scrappy college-rock upstarts to world-conquering rock 'n' roll outfit.
The set starts with two discs' worth of intimate sessions recorded between 1991 and 2003 that lower the intensity that often fueled R.E.M.'s more electric live performances in front of larger audiences. These tracks provide a stripped-down portrait of the band – especially the somber "World Leader Pretend" that opens the set and an unplugged "Losing My Religion," both from a 1991 radio program – but they share R.E.M. at the BBC's most dynamic moments with that 1984 concert from Nottingham.
Loose, energetic and less polished than they'd become by the end of the decade, the group's performance here includes ragged versions of Reckoning tracks, songs from their debut LP Murmur, and early stabs at cuts like "Hyena," "Driver 8" and "Wendell Gee" that showed up on later albums.
R.E.M. never really played around much with their songs onstage, so even before their commercial fortunes changed, they were mostly professional, tight and focused. That means only a handful of these live performances are all that different from their studio versions. But there are still some surprises along the way, like a 2004 recording of "E-Bow the Letter" with Radiohead's Thom Yorke from a small London gig that's particularly noteworthy – as is a scorching 2003 take on "Orange Crush" that's tucked into an otherwise mostly acoustic sessions playlist.
There's some song overlap from the band's broadcast shows in the '90s. "Losing My Religion," "Everybody Hurts" and "Man on the Moon" appear several times throughout R.E.M. at the BBC, with few variations among them. And the later sets, like the last one here from 2004, contain several songs from the lesser-known albums released during the group's final decade.
Still, if you're going all in for the box (which also includes a DVD of TV broadcasts), this probably won't bother you much. Casual fans may want the two-CD version that cherry picks some of the best moments from the eight discs instead. All the highlights are there, including an entire disc of radio sessions and five tracks from the 1984 show.
Either way, R.E.M. at the BBC chronicles the history of the world's greatest college-rock band and its relationship with the network that helped share its music long before and after R.E.M. hit their commercial peak. You won't find too many revelations here: A gassed-up "Drive" is about as far as they steer things from where you'd expect. The focus instead is on some great songs that helped shape a genre and an era.