R.E.M. are the only band to have performed twice for MTV’s once vaunted Unplugged programme. Few bands fitted the format so well and unlike many acts – we’re looking at you Bruce Springsteen – played genuinely unplugged.
Taking early inspiration from West Coast folk rock, R.E.M.’s 90s material sounded as if it began creative life strummed on an acoustic guitar, while Michael Stipe’s vocal style was more suited to lounge bar intimacy than stadium histrionics, despite their ranking for much of the 90s as the biggest band in the world.
Although a decade apart, the differences between these two sessions are slender – Losing My Religion features on both and sounds near identical, while the 2001 set digs deep into the back catalogue, with fantastic versions of So. Central Rain, Country Feedback and Cuyahoga. The difference is something you can’t really hear: success. In 1991, they were at their commercial peak, promoting Out Of Time, the world’s student population in thrall. A decade later, with drummer Mike Berry departed, they were attempting to win back an audience that had faded as they’d become more experimental. Unplugged was the perfect springboard.
For collectors, the biggest draw of this two-CD release – which comes on the back of a Record Store Day vinyl edition– are the 11 tracks that didn’t make it to TV. Best of these is a wonderful version of World Leader Pretend in the 1991 set and in 2001, an emotive version of I’ll Take The Rain from Reveal. For the less committed, it’s an excellent reminder that a great band with a great back catalogue can be just as beautiful without make-up.