I feel like there was a very specific period of time in which R.E.M. were like “we’re tired of this underground band/best kept secret shit. We want to make anthems.” “Finest Worksong”, the track that leads off their pop breakthrough Document, is evidence that the four guys from anthem can, would and did write anthems. While the actual hit singles were elsewhere on the album (including “The One I Love”, the song that introduced me to the band when I was a wee lad of 11), “Finest Worksong” has gone on to become one of R.E.M.’s best known and most beloved album tracks. I first remember hearing it on the Monster tour in ’95, which was the first arena show I went to. I think R.E.M. opened with it, but it was twenty four years ago, I didn’t keep set lists, and my memory isn’t that good.
All of the ingredients that make singalong anthems are here; “Finest Worksong” possesses a driving beat and a simple chorus (another big shout out to Mike Mills for the vocal support). It also-per R.E.M. custom-contains lyrics that are pretty easily misunderstood. What appears at first glance to be a celebration of the American worker a la Mellencamp/Springsteen is actually a critical analysis of clock punchers who get sold a fake American dream.
Another interesting thing about “Finest Worksong” is that there were remixes of it marketed to clubs. Horns were added, the backbeat was punched up, and I’m not sure if it ever actually got played on a dance floor, but I actually find the dance mixes enjoyable.