On R.E.M.’s new live release showcasing their 1991 and 2001 MTV Unplugged sessions, there are almost two different bands displaying a similar sound. In the first CD that contains the 1991 MTV Unplugged session, there is a young, emotional band that is starting to settle into a sound they are comfortable with but still wants to explore new sounds. The 2001 MTV Unplugged session shows a much older band that has settled into their defining sound and only looks back to the past for their inspiration instead of going forward into new fields of sound.
The 1991 unplugged session is an audio document of R.E.M. At their peak in popularity and sound. Out of Time had just come out, and R.E.M. was just starting to explore new instruments like organs, mandolins, and bongos to add into their music. Michael Stype sounds happy, even on the more somber tracks, consistently through every track and the rest of the band reflects this overall feeling of happiness that dominates the 1991 MTV session. There are some minor mistakes that can be heard over the course of the session that even Michael Stype acknowledges on some of the audio tracks, but it’s the imperfections that make the band and the session seem more real than just an audio recording. It’s as if you were right in front of R.E.M., watching them play their greatest hits in 1991.
The 2001 unplugged session is similar to the 1991 session, but more overall themes can be heard in the 2001 session that aren’t in the 1991 session. It’s as if there is nothing no longer new to R.E.M. that they haven’t already done. There are marimbas, banjos, pianos, and so many other instruments used in this session, but the band feels to comfortable with all of the different instruments. The band doesn’t seem to have that enthusiasm and happiness that was on the 1991 unplugged session. Michael Stype seems almost bored and just treats the session as if it’s just another show; there is nothing new and nothing that no longer excites him. It’s almost sad to hear such a stark contrast in sound in ten years from a young band that was enthusiastic to do anything to a band that knew they could do anything and took that for granted.
– Brandon Oleksy