Recorded during a series of performances at Dublin’s famed Olympia club in July 2007, R.E.M.‘s Live at the Olympia double album provides great insight into the band’s creative process as they used a series of club dates to work out the kinks in the arrangements of the songs that would eventually form 2008’s Accelerate. The alternate versions of the excellent “Supernatural Superserious” (included here under its original title, “Disguised”) and “Man-Sized Wreath” suggest that the band edits their material with a strong ear for overall tone and sound quality, since the arrangements included recall the heavy distortion and grunge of their Monster era rather than the more streamlined guitar rock of Accelerate.
Perhaps what impresses most about the set is how the band draws from their endlessly deep catalogue but reworks many familiar favorites, including “Drive” from Automatic for the People, “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” from Fables of the Reconstruction, and “Electrolite” from New Adventures in Hi-Fi, such that they fit comfortably alongside their most recent material. The set doesn’t play as a greatest hits collection by any means, but it’s nonetheless an embarrassment of riches: Even the two songs that didn’t make the final cut for Accelerate, “Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance” and the melancholy “On the Fly,” are strong.
The band is in characteristically fine form here, though Michael Stipe frequently makes references to the series of working rehearsals as “an experiment in terror.” Other than a flubbed line on “Drive,” which producer Jackknife Lee leaves intact, it’s hard to fault the performances. Stipe is in excellent, clear voice (and though the between-songs chatter is minimal, he cracks a couple of jokes about the shoddy quality of his reprinted lyrics as found online), with guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills giving real punch to the songs’ arrangements. Given the quality of the performances and the depth of the song selection, Olympia is not simply a for-fans-only vanity project or an excuse to revisit an album that’s just over a year old, but it stands as an essential addition to R.E.M.‘s catalogue.