If there was ever a doubt that R.E.M. lost something as they aged, it is no more emblematic than on their two MTV Unplugged sessions recorded a decade apart. It has nothing to do with the quality of the music or the songwriting; those elements remain constant. It has to do with the band’s willingness to take risks.
In 1991, R.E.M. had recently released “Losing My Religion.” They were the biggest band in America, on their way to being the biggest band in the world. So did they put their best foot forward, playing all the songs that were already underground hits or at least should have been? Not exactly. They played their cover of The Troggs’ “Love Is All Around,” two instrumentals, and b-side “Fretless.” Surrounding those tracks of course were a couple of hits: the afore mentioned “Losing My Religion,” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” and “Radio Song” gracefully without KRS-One or Michael Stipe attempting to rap. While those were all hits or minor hits, they skipped the major ones. No “The One I Love.” No “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry).” No “Orange Crush.” No “Shiny Happy People.” The result is a set that is really interesting to listen to on more levels than just “what do these songs sound like acoustic?” Michael Stipe introduces “Fall on Me” as “this very well may be my favorite song in the R.E.M. catalogue.” They follow up “Fall on Me” with “Belong,” an Out of Time deep cut featuring Stipe talking in his deep baritone over guitar arpeggios before breaking into a chorus of ooooohs. The choice is an odd one but it is a chance that works.
Fast forward a decade, 2001’s unplugged session was recorded just three years before R.E.M. would release the worst album of their career in Around the Sun. The hints of what made that record so bad are embedded in the performance. Around the Sun was called R.E.M. playing it safe; releasing a passionless, “get me over the hump” record. On the second disc of Unplugged, boldest choice R.E.M. made with their set list in 2001 were playing the “So. Central Rain” and “The One I Love” they omitted from their 1991 set. Of the 16 songs they played that night, nine of them were written post-Bill Berry departure. Not daring at all.
With that said, the second disc is still pretty impressive. For all those R.E.M. fans who believe nothing after 1994’s Monster is worth listening to, be prepared to be proved wrong. The tracks from Reveal imparticularly are given new life, leaving behind their studio electronic shimmer and instead letting them stand on their own. “I’ve Been High” gets a reworking on acoustic guitar and organ that is simply spectacular. Similarly, Up solo acoustic track “Sad Professor” gets reworked with an organ addition, making an already beautiful song even more so.
While “Sad Professor” is a somewhat bold choice, especially as a closing track, it is one of the few made in 2001. The fact that the set doesn’t feel particularly adventurous, there is still a lot to like there just as there is from 1991. For R.E.M. completists, Unplugged 1991/2001: The Complete Sessions is a great score. For observers who just want to hear the hits acoustic, hopefully they can learn something about the band’s early career exploration or underrated late career releases.