For My Sister
Dead Letter Office is perhaps one of the best album titles in the history of rock and roll, but it is also one of the least ambitious. A room full of tunes going nowhere? Undelivered melodies? There is none of the epic grandeur of ‘Meat is Murder,’ ‘Nebraska’ or ‘The Boatman Calls’ here. R.E.M.’s 1987 album of B sides and covers is an anti-album, full of blind alleys, instrumental parodies (one track, ‘White Tornado,’ is referred to on the liner notes as ‘Generic Surf’) and some accomplished early discards by Stipe, Buck and co. It’s a fan’s album, and as a disillusioned fan of R.E.M., I don’t often stop by to check this miscellany of musical postcards, love letters and junk mail. But Dead Letter Office yields a number of ‘seldom pleasures’ even to the non-afficionado.
‘Ages of You’ is one R.E.M. tune that sounds like it would be a perfect fit on Murmur or Reckoning, and it’s a reminder that it isn’t necessary to know what Stipe is singing about in his early songs: the blurred feeling is exactly why they work. Someone is lost to him. We know little about them; only the ache of losing them persists and the time spent with the lover runs through the song’s fingers. You don’t need much more from a love song than this. Stipe’s words slip past and absence looms.
But more important still are the three Velvet Underground tracks that punctuate this dusty, joke-filled mailroom. ‘There She Goes,’ ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Femme Fatale’ are three of the Velvets’ saddest. R.E.M. can do atrocious covers (think of their ‘First We Take Manhattan’ and you’ll have the idea) but here they Nina Simone these Velvets songs completely. All three take Warhol’s New York a long way south and make that world-weary sexual decadence (‘There she goes again/she’s have you down on your knees my friend/you’ll never ask her ‘please’ again’; ‘she’s a femme fatale/the things she does to please’) into spare, bluegrass lullabies.
Yet this Office is more than a collection of fine Velvets covers. The sound of the record holds in place the early-to-mid eighties and all its musical hangovers. Buck’s Rickenbacker cleanly tracks the ‘jingle jangle’ of The Byrds; Stipe’s camerashake lyrics look up and back to Patti Smith’s Horses. The tongue-in-cheek version of ‘Toys in the Attic’ defines the band as The Anti-Aerosmith; this is not an album with big hair and skintight leopardskin trousers. But neither does it dress in black and sport Lou Reed shades. Dead Letter Office is a missive addressed to a deeper South, an inner America. R.E.M. were a very fine band indeed when they still knew how to find that slow and tender place.