Believe it or not, there was a time when MTV inspired more than an STI screening. Long before it was overrun with greased up guidos and pregnant teenagers, the music channel played music. REM’s Unplugged happily reminds us of a moment when guitars were a thing on television. The two-disc, post-breakup release offers mourning fans the entire 1991 and 2001 sessions, marking two important moments in REM’s history – one going up and one staying there. The 1991 concert aired in the wake of international super-hit Out Of Time and features record favourite ‘Losing My Religion.’ In 2001, the band celebrated another successful decade of albums including Monster and Automatic For The People. Unplugged is a remarkable piece of work, however it won’t teach you anything about the band you didn’t already know.
On the first disc (1991) thick harmonies and Peter Buck’s incomparable guitar embrace Stipe’s lyrics to the point of buzzing. Standouts are the aching ‘Fall On Me’ and Troggs cover ‘Love Is All Around.’ ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It,’ luckily features intelligible lyrics other than just “Leonard Bernstein.” The second volume is slightly more reserved and slightly sturdier. ‘So. Central Rain’ and ‘Sad Professor’ leave a haunting echo. But the entire album could easily read as one recorded session. There is no notable evolution between ‘now’ and ‘then,’ just a consistent run of quality music. The record offers a quieter glimpse of an important band, securing their place alongside contemporaries Pearl Jam and, most eerily present, Nirvana.
While it might be possible to talk about Michael Stipe without mentioning Kurt Cobain, it is impossible to talk about REM’s Unplugged without mentioning Nirvana’s. REM was to Nirvana what Patti Smith was to REM. In multiple interviews, Cobain praised Stipe and his band for their graceful handling of success while still producing great music. Cobain seemed in awe of an artistic stability that he would ultimately never enjoy. Five months before Cobain’s suicide, Nirvana appeared on MTV’s Unplugged for what is undoubtedly the greatest performance of the show’s history, perhaps the band’s, and was followed by a posthumously released album that went on to go 5x Platinum and win a Grammy.
The painful and vulnerable magic of that release is one you won’t find on REM’s. The boys from Georgia made their mark by giving punk a lyric thoughtfulness. In an era when danger was music’s biggest commodity, REM cashed in on consistent talent with measured media exposure. And somewhere in the middle of all this, Michael Stipe learned how to be a rock star. The enduring strength of REM exists in stark contrast to the meteoric rise of Nirvana and its exposed front man. Stipe is on Unplugged as Stipe always was, heartfelt and extremely good at his job. What results is a beautiful but unnecessary collection of one of the music’s most necessary bands.