Thursday, August 18, 2005

Calmer, sunnier, familiar
R.E.M.’s new album is more accessible but not necessarily better than the one before

It’s that part of the decade again. When R.E.M. releases a new album and the world listens. Debate, demur, revile or exalt - that depends on your age and your current state-of-mind. Admirers of the band know how risky it is to pass judgement on the band’s new album, without allowing it to grow on you. It always does. At least, it has for over a decade.

R.E.M. is indisputably the world’s finest rock band today, bar none. U2 is the only band that even comes close to R.E.M.’s stature. But R.E.M.’s nineties output (that included five scintillating albums, each one different from the other, yet with a distinguishable common thread) took it beyond the reach of everybody else and won them the respect of every musical community. Much like what had happened with The Beatles in the sixties. But R.E.M. has been around for more than double the time The Beatles existed as a band (nineteen years to eight!) and that’s significant. R.E.M. are still every bit as vital as they were when they burst into the scene in the early eighties (and helped establish “alternative rock”). They’re older now, mellower and wiser. Their famed artistic integrity has at least two generations of rock musicians hailing them as role-models.

In 1998, the four-member band had its first major setback when drummer Bill Berry quit (he’s a soybean farmer now). The remaining three (Michael Stipe: vocals, Peter Buck: guitars; Mike Mills:bass) then emerged with the album Up. The world has been divided ever since – between those who loved the album and those who hated it (despite granting it a couple of gems). R.E.M. created a frayed atmosphere through the album, expressing the personal crises of different fictional individuals (their own overall, perhaps), musically liberating themselves into adopting various musical styles. In many ways, they had reinvented themselves…which most of their fans (and indeed, the ‘with-it’ critics) did not appreciate.

This new album – Reveal has been hailed by old fans and music critics all over as the result of R.E.M. reverting to their old trademark style. Most have likened it to the indisputable classic Automatic For The People (1992). Anyone who who considers Up a breathtakingly beautiful album (the minority), would beg to disagree. This album in fact seems to be an onward journey from Up. Many of the tunes may remind you of the ethereal qualities of Automatic’s finest moments, but overall it is Up this album recalls. In fact, and this will be an unpopular view, despite being a superb album, hardly any tracks on Reveal touch the emotional depths of the best songs on Up (like “Sad Professor” and “Diminished”). The lyrical directness that Stipe had worked towards on Up (for the first time ever) is also gone, replaced by the familiar obtuseness, and this is perhaps the quality it has most in common with Automatic.

Reveal is a calmer, sunnier version of Up, thus making it warmer and more accessible. The gorgeous melodies transcend the frayed soundscape that add their own colour – synth bubbles, gentle psychedelia and all. “The Lifting” is an upbeat opening and leads straight away on to the album’s masterpiece “I’ve Been High”. Stipe’s vocals brim with compassion, as they’d done most affectingly on Up. On songs like “Beat A Drum” and “Summer Turns To High”, R.E.M. mine the Beach Boys muse again (they’d begun that in Up with “At My Most Beautiful”). The template R.E.M. tunes are there too – “Imitation Of Life” and “She Just Wants To Be”, sounding as miraculously fresh as ever (just like “Daysleeper” did in Up). The gentleness of tracks like “Chorus And The Ring” and “I’ll Take The Rain” do remind one of Automatic, but moments like these have been there in small doses in all R.E.M. albums since 1992 (except Monster).

Interestingly, this is the first R.E.M. album in over a decade that sounds more like its preceding one than any other. Its lightness of touch has clearly worked as a red herring. The bottomline is that Reveal would not have happened if Up hadn’t happened just before it. After Bill Berry’s departure, R.E.M. became a new band, and this is just the second album by that band. They haven’t jettisoned all that made them great in the past; instead they have assimilated that with a new vision, a slightly altered sensibility. Warts and all, this is still adult music, at its very best. There is no better proof of rock and roll having grown up, than R.E.M.

June 2001


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