The 39 songs from Live at the Olympia are an R.E.M. connoisseur’s dream. Not only do they take a homerun swing at the I.R.S. years (23 tracks), they also hit that homerun with their most vital and exciting live recording to date. Heck, nearly a third of the tracks are from their first three releases alone (Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning). This seems like a promise to R.E.M. fans that, with last year’s Accelerate, they’re returning to their glory days as the band that defined college radio.
When Mike Mills yells through a bullhorn in the beginning, “This is not a show!” he is letting listeners know that these five nights in Dublin are rehearsals…rehearsals for new songs on the upcoming Accelerate, as well as practice for the ensuing tour. Sure, one could argue that out of five nights of songs, they were sure to cull some great sounding music. But this music is beyond great…it takes the R.E.M. fans back to a time when the band was at the top of their game.
Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills remain as originals (drummer Bill Berry retired in 1997). Ministry’s Bill Rieflin returns from the last album on drums and Scott McGaughey sits in on guitars and backing vocals.
For 2008’s excellent Accelerate, the Dublin audience was treated as lab rats, with nine of the eleven tracks that made the album played here. One title you may not recognize, “Disguised,” was later renamed “Supernatural Superserious” (“Everybody here, comes from somewhere / That they would just as soon forget, and disguise”) and released as the first single from Accelerate. The new songs are wildly accepted, as the Irish seem to agree with Americans: R.E.M. is back, reminding us how they elevated alternative music to an art form.
As the new accelerated songs are interspersed throughout the album, it mostly consists of what made R.E.M. great, which was the beginning. Songs from their initial independent EP, Chronic Town, shine here as four of the five are performed in a way unfamiliar to fans: Michael Stipe’s lyrics are intelligible. No longer do we hear the murmur that was their trademark in the early eighties. Each song is loud, crisp, and thrilling. I mean, who knew that Stipe was singing, “It’s been pretty simple so far, vacation in Athens is calling me / And knock, knock, knock on wood, I thought I’d left you behind” from Reckoning’s “Letter Never Sent”?
Standout tracks are clearly the Reckoning selections, especially “Harborcoat.” This song has always been a favorite of mine and is performed here with new life breathed into it. “Cuyahoga,” which Stipe admits to pronouncing incorrectly on Life’s Rich Pageant; “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first live R.E.M. song I ever heard. They opened with it for their St. Louis show on the Fables of the Reconstruction tour in 1985.
Document’s “Welcome to the Occupation” is another bright spot in this already illuminated recording. The closer, “Gardening at Night,” shows how these lads from Athens, Georgia have matured and evolved since it was released in 1982.
Produced by Jacknife Lee, who was also at the helm of last year’s Accelerate, Live at the Olympia in Dublin showcases R.E.M. as alternative rock gods reborn. Diehard fans of the group will find a song or two that will be in heavy rotation on their iPod for years to come.