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Talk about the government?

R.E.M. set their sights on the world leader pretend


Smack in the middle of "Little America," the last song on R.E.M.'s second record, Michael Stipe, coasting on the momentum of a rollicking chorus, bleats, "Jefferson, I think we're lost."

The statement was directed at the band's then-manager Jefferson Holt, but considering the way the '00s have treated these lower wolves, the weary lament seems prescient. Though the group spent the better part of the '90s high on critical adulation and commercial prosperity, R.E.M.'s post-millennial fortunes have been noticeably spotty. After the departure of founding member Bill Berry in 1996, it released both the difficult but rewarding Up and the accessible but dull Reveal to mixed reviews and moderate sales. You could argue that those records were transitional, mostly intended as a way to prevent the group from coming apart altogether. And Michael Stipe would be the first to agree.

"When Bill left the band, it left us really unsettled in a lot of different ways," Stipe says. He is himself smack in the middle of little America as he speaks, backstage in New Orleans on a tour promoting the group's forthcoming greatest hits record, In Time. "We spent a lot of time trying to find our grounding as a trio. Though I'm really proud of the two records that came out of that period, I feel like it took us until now to get to the same level of confidence we had as a four-piece."

The core group -- Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills -- is flashing that confidence like a new dime. This tour finds R.E.M. hopscotching through its cavernous back catalog, dusting off rarely played gems like "Shaking Through" and "Catapult." In Time, arriving in late October, showcases highlights from the group's Warner Bros. efforts (beginning with 1989's Green). Packaged together, the songs are a testament to the band's broad scope. Hearing the way "Orange Crush" leads into "Imitation of Life" which leads into "Daysleeper" lends new context and appreciation for the later efforts. It's remarkable for any group to have so many gems in a single career -- let alone half of one.

In addition to the hits, In Time also sees the completion of "Bad Day," a song kicking around the group's catalog in some form for the last 17 years. A dervish of bounding chords and barked Stipe vocals, "Bad Day" finds the earlier, Byrdsian R.E.M. making peace with the snarling, chord-driven monster of the '90s.

It also marks the group's return to political themes common in its '80s output but largely ignored in the decade that followed. Fitted with new lyrics, "Bad Day" indicts a "Teflon, whitewashed presidency" and culminates with Stipe snarling, "The lights went out/The oil ran dry/We blamed it on the other guy."

Pointed verse was not Stipe's initial intention. "I tried not to write political lyrics for about six months," he says. "I kept throwing them away, going, 'Nobody cares, get off your high horse.' Now I realize that if it keeps coming up over and over again, there's probably a lot of other people feeling the same thing. I'm not an academic and I'm not an expert on global politics, but I do have feelings about these things."

These feelings are already seeping into the seven songs R.E.M. has written for its next record (13th overall), which Stipe says the group will complete by January. Despite the reawakening of his political sensibility, Stipe does not require his audience to agree with every sentiment.

"My first job up there is as an entertainer," he says. "At some point during the '80s, I got really frustrated. I felt like a dancing monkey for the Reagan youth. But I think I got a little wiser about that. You can't just preach to the converted." He catches himself and laughs. "And I'm not up there to preach anyway. I'm up there to bring people music. If they love the music so much that they want to be there, then I welcome them."

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