If somebody in your life is an R.E.M. fan, you might want to immediately grab them a copy of this box set. It’s as simple as that. Christmas is sorted for that person, and you will forever enjoy hero status within their presence. This is the kind of real-world artefact that gives back just a little bit of intensity that’s faded from their soul over years of digital music consumption. It’s era and genre defining. It’s a “how to” guide for the craft of songwriting and an uncompromising blueprint for independent artists. REM’s 7IN-83-88 is a collection of 7” records that mark the early releases of one of history’s most staggeringly important acts.
Although R.E.M. enjoyed seven No.1 albums with Warner Bros, their years spent with independent label IRS have come to characterize the band over time. Eleven singles released during this period comprise the new box set; which is a bewildering lesson in the timelessness of their music.
Each 7” record has remained true to its original release. The detail is astounding, from the recreated artwork to the feel of finish between your fingers. “Radio Free Europe” has a grain to it, almost a fanzine charm to the paper quality, while “Wendell Gee” is a polished, gold-labeled gatefold. There’s little uniformity to the production; some records featuring a jukebox-style center while others are turntable ready. Even the way each sleeve is glued or which side it opens has been considered, giving each vinyl an identity. It’s a joy to play with, to fondle, flip-through and savor. Even to smell, the richness and diversity of inks and gloss is subtle but noted.
Including the original artwork is a nice touch. Taking in the eleven sleeves, you have to applaud the craftsmanship of their art direction, as well as muted touches. There seems to be no house style, and that’s somewhat fitting for the music thereon. Between 1983 and 1988 R.E.M.’s sound went from jangly alt-country to something recognizable as defining what would be 90’s indie, ultimately setting the stage for their moodier, more elaborate albums like New Adventures In HiFi. “Finest Worksong” in fact wouldn’t have been out of place on that 1992 album. Images range from an upside down black and white puppet head-butting a globe and a crudely drawn horse being pulled off the sleeve, to an abstract fish and pencil drawing of a toddler. They’re all a bit odd if truth be told. They’re quirky and sometimes a bit shit. You have to wonder if REM are just that pretentious or simply taking the piss. Maybe a bit of both.
This collection highlights a fun side to the band, a playfulness in their melodies that they would later explore - arguably too much - on 1991’s Out Of Time. “Fall On Me”, a personal favourite of Michael Stipe’s, is a cheery enough sounding tune that veils the song’s exploration of “oppression” as he describes it. “Superman”, a cover of The Clique’s 1969 original, is just as wide-eyed, also marking Mike Mills debut as a vocalist. Their offbeat cover of “King Of The Road” is included on the b-side of “So Central Rain”, which feels somewhere between a joke and genuine homage to the vagabond hobos that inspired the original. They represent one aspect of the band being tried. They’re the kind of songs that IRS would be happy to put their name on where other labels may have resisted. From a time when R.E.M. were discovering their boundaries, these recordings show the cogs of exploration.
The box set is billed as including 'rare' b-sides, which is somewhat unfair to the massively popular Dead Letter Office compilation. There’s nothing too unheard here, but then again you’re probably not buying this as an introduction to the band. If you were though it would be an astonishing way to approach the richness and passion of a hungry, young outfit on the verge of acclaim. Within this small collection there’s some important pop records. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” is one of those R.E.M. songs that everybody knows, even if they reckon they don’t know any R.E.M. songs. It’s also a feat in verbal acrobatics. It’s one of the more gratifying songs to learn, knowing every line being a badge of fandom, especially as the band are often against printing lyrics in their album sleeves. “The One I Love” was a hit on both sides of the pond and even features on a few versions of Guitar Hero. Maybe down to its sophisticated bit of stringwork that would become synonymous with the R.E.M. catalogue. "Don't Go Back To Rockville" also deserves a nod at this point.
It’s a perplexing thing, the idea that some people would report not knowing any R.E.M. songs, or just as many might pull a face at the very mention of the band. There’s a completely unjust idea that they’re naff, or “dad rock”, and that’s maybe due to some of their later singles such as “Stand”, “Shiny Happy People”, and “Everybody Hurts”. I get it… but you’re completely fucking wrong if that’s what you think defines this band. They are as near indefinable as any musicians can be, and this box set aims to hammer that point.
At the dawn of music television R.E.M. were a challenging concept for a post-pop/pre-grunge generation. They were songwriters in the way The Beatles had been, or Elvis Costello. Traditional and modest, while being equally rebellious and accessible. A line was drawn in the sand between the ludicrous excesses, feeble philosophies, and pomposity in rock and a new age of music as art. An age of independent ideals, challenging concepts, big melodies, and lyrics that ripped your fucking heart out of its chest. REM nearly single-handedly built the architecture which Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, Pavement, and Nirvana would later endow. They reconceived the MTV generation.
7IN-83-88 is the faultlessly reproduced early story of a band whose influence was heard in music for three decades to come, and in countless albums you love. It’s a visual, emotional celebration of greatness in the making. These eleven vinyls are too significant not to own.