REM released its first live album in 2007 called Live and it was notable for not being very notable at all. The accompanying DVD from the show in Dublin, Ireland gave a better impression of the dynamic live act this band can be, but the set list was heavy with the laconic songs from Around the Sun, the record they were supporting at the time, and too many familiar warhorses otherwise. Moreover, the recording itself was more lifeless than live.
Much better were the period-era shows provided with the anniversary reissues of Murmur and Reckoning. The raw energy and approach of those early gigs satisfied as testaments to REM’s talent on stage. But with Live at Olympia in Dublin – yes, back to Ireland for another crack at it—REM has finally released what could be called a definitive live album, in both sound and spectrum.
Compiled from five nights of live rehearsals from what would produce 2008’s Accelerate album and tour, the band seems to find inspiration in some of their oldest material, filling the two CDs (39 songs) with sharp performances of tracks from their very first release (the EP Chronic Town) through the first 4 or 5 albums that followed. They also sprinkle in songs from throughout their history, many of which that have not been played very often through the years (“Circus Envy,” “New Test Leper”), and provide plenty of early takes on Accelerate songs, including a couple of outtakes that didn’t make that record.
The results sound fresh and new, and give a complete picture of the band at its peak, despite the “exercise in terror” they all allegedly were going through by taking their rehearsals out in front of a crowd. Yes, there are some false starts and missed notes, but REM is too road-tested and polished to ever really lay an egg, and perhaps the experience brought more energy to their performance, which crackles with intensity.
The sound mix (overseen by Accelerate producer Jacknife Lee) also helps with the power, as it is right up front and in your face, like any good live show should be. Mike Mills’ bass is particularly muscular (if always melodic), though I found myself missing the more fluid drumming of original drummer Bill Berry, who made his mark on many of the songs presented. Current skins man Bill Rieflin certainly fits the bill for the sturdy sound of REM today, but Berry’s impact was always a sneaky pleasure.
While the two discs are filled with a treasure chest of delights, there is one jarring lyrical moment: In “Little America,” singer Michael Stipe changes the key line “Jefferson, I think we’re lost” to “Washington, I think we’re lost.” I guess the acrimonious split several years back with original manager Jefferson Holt, about whom the line refers to, still resonates. If that moment strikes as odd for longtime fans, it is really the only one in a bracingly captured return to form.