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Album Review: R.E.M. – R.E.M. Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions

3 min read

September 21st 2011 was a pretty monumental day. Not only did Google stake their claim on social media with Google+, but also the music world came to the end of a 31-year era with the announcement that the incomparable R.E.M. – one of the few “Legacy” acts left in the world – were “calling it a day”. Over the course of a whopping 15 studio albums, they went from the US college radio darlings of the mid-‘80s to bona fide stadium-filling rock royalty a decade later and continued this success for a further decade still. While there’s something truly admirable about hanging up the boots at the top of your game, there was definitely a void left by such a massive entity bowing out with their dignity intact – and let’s not forget that dignity is one of the main qualities Michael Stipe and co. exhibited time and time again throughout their career.

R.E.M._-_Unplugged_-_The_Complete_1991_and_2001_SessionsThis month however, fans the world over will be given something of a nicotine patch for the soul in R.E.M. Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions – a double live album comprising of the two unabridged performances the band gave for the legendary MTV series. Originally released as a double-vinyl set for this year’s Record Store Day, both Unplugged performances were presumably promo spots for the albums Out of Time and Reveal – a pair of landmark albums for the band – however the tracklist for each session reflects a wonderfully comprehensive collection of hits and rarities up until the release of each.

The acoustic treatment was always going to work for a band like R.E.M. who could always manage to achieve a stunning intimacy with their audience whether it’s listening to them alone on headphones in the dark or in an arena with tens of thousands of others screaming along. The most striking quality about R.E.M. Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions is the effortlessness with which the poppier songs like Radio Song, It’s The End Of The World As We Know It and Losing My Religion (of which there’s an incredible and completely different version on each disc) translate without the amplifiers or drums. The 1991 set also includes a spirited take on The Troggs’ classic Love Is All Around and bear in mind, this was well before the 1994 Wet Wet Wet cover for which the song is probably best known.

While the first disc exhibits a band that’s finally “arrived”, the second disc showcases the maturity of a group that’s etched their place in history and at the same time, one in peak form. The noticeable ageing of Stipe’s unmistakable voice only enhances the frailty of songs like Electrolite and 1999’s At My Most Beautiful to jaw dropping and heart wrenching effect. Favourites like set opener All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star), Imitation Of Life, and the carousing singalong Daysleeper all benefit from the bare-boned arrangements they’re given and the immortal songwriting for which the band are known doesn’t suffer one iota.

Overall R.E.M. Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions is a collection for diehard fans and casual observers alike. It only serves to highlight what a once-in-a-lifetime band R.E.M. were and rub salt into the wound that they will never perform again at all, much less in this beautifully candid fashion. However with legends of the past reuniting left and right, all we can do is hope and dream. Right?