R.E.M. may be the only band to headline MTV Unplugged twice, but the group that appeared on the show in 1991 and the one that returned 10 years later differed in multiple respects. The first incarnation reached a plateau of popularity made possible by ’91′s Out of Time and its unlikely smash “Losing My Religion.” The second began when the Athens quartet lost longtime drummer/multi-instrumentalist Bill Berry and changed sidemen to de-emphasize guitar, accentuate keyboards and fill Berry’s shoes. This unit had also experienced a significant dip in sales, particularly in the U.S., where airplay for their most recent albums, 1998′s Up and 2001′s Reveal, was akin to their earliest releases. No longer possessing the nearly infallible chemistry that made them one of the most reliable bands of the ’80s and early ’90s, R.E.M. instead morphed into a studio act caught between experimental impulses and mainstream expectations.
As epitomized by classic cuts like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” the first set is largely more uptempo. Even in this largely acoustic setting it’s undeniable that circa-’91 R.E.M. brings more tangible energy and excitement than their latter manifestation. Contrast the first version of “Losing My Religion,” the only song that appears twice, with the second. The latter lacks both Berry’s percussion and Mike Mills’s bass; there’s far less drive, more reflection.
But rather that heightening the distinctions between R.E.M. Mk. 1 and 2 as their studio albums had done, Unplugged 1991/2001 minimizes them. The song selection, which pulls five cuts from each then-current album, tempers the dip in R.E.M.’s compositional standards. Both sets culminate with several songs not aired in each Unplugged program, and in each case they’re starker, moodier and more experimental than what aired: The first ends with a pensive, accordion-led “World Leader Pretend,” while the second features an equally striking, piano-prominent “The One I Love.”
Although R.E.M.’s post-Berry catalog is rarely held with the same reverence as what preceded, it’s hard to deny that the magic remains on a tenderly harmonized rendition of Up‘s “At My Most Beautiful,” or that the band did old favorites justice: Check Michael Stipe’s pained vocal on “So. Central Rain” and the lilting uplift of “Cuyahoga.” R.E.M. would soldier on for another 10 years, sometimes with inspiration, sometimes without. But it’s clear that their superior skill at arranging (and rearranging) their music was here still very much in effect.