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File Under Rearrange
In Major League Baseball, there is the concept of the “walk year,” the final year that a player has on a contract prior to becoming a free agent. As a player, what you want in that situation is to have a great year, because it will obviously increase your value on the market.
In 1987, R.E.M. was facing the equivalent of their walk year: the last album on their original contract with I.R.S. records, and while every record they’d made sold better than the previous one, they were still seen primarily as a critics band. Not so much after Document, which landed them their first Rolling Stone cover (a thing I’d been predicting since Reckoning), their first major hit single, and their first platinum record: the equivalent of a .312/.442/.563 slash line in their walk year.
That said, most of the heavy lifting on Document is done on its first side — probably the best side of any of their albums since side one of Murmur — which features six pumped-up variations on their trademark sound, opening with perhaps the most pumped-up of all.
“Finest Worksong” opens with Peter Buck tossing metallic shimmering notes while Bill Berry holds down the fort with his kick drum and hi-hat. It’s slow and menacing, kind of a combination of the previous two opening tracks, but doubling down on both the big guitars from “Begin The Begin” and the tension of “Feeling Gravitys Pull“.
And it just feels massive, like run you over with a truck massive. And Michael Stipe, who had spent most of his career hiding in the nooks and crannies of their quieter songs, has decided that he wants to be heard, thank you very much, shouting over the top of the tidal wave.
The time to rise has been engaged
You’d better best to rearrange
I’m talking here to me alone
I listen to the finest worksong
Your finest hour
Your finest hour
There’s not a lot of tricksiness going on in “Finest Worksong,” as it’s really more concerned with establishing their new sound — oh, and yet another new producer, Scott Litt — more than anything else, though there’s a cool little callback to “I Believe” in the final verse, which they like so much, they repeat twice.
Take your instinct by the reins
Better best to rearrange
What we want and what we need
Has been confused, been confused
After that, “Finest Worksong” collapses into itself, like a neutron star.
While it was the leadoff track on Document, “Finest Worksong” was also the third single released from that record, but it was just too huge to make any kind of inroads on the pop charts, even after the success of “The One I Love.” As a matter of fact, despite becoming one of the biggest acts in the world, R.E.M. was always too weird for it to be a given that every single they released would even chart, regardless of what the previous ones had done.
“Finest Worksong” video
“Finest Worksong” Lengthy Club Mix (audio only)
“Finest Worksong” live 1989
“Finest Worksong” Berlin, 2003
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