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The Boston Phoenix Strange Folk

R.E.M. get weird again

By Matt Ashare

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  The new R.E.M. album -- Up (Warner Bros., out this Tuesday), the band's 11th in 18 years, not counting EPs and compilations -- is almost certainly not the sort of album R.E.M. fans were expecting or hoping for. It's also -- and in this way alone it bears some resemblance to 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi -- not the kind of album Warner Bros. must have told its accountants to figure into long-term financial forecasts when the band were re-signed to a rather enormous contract by the label a few years back. None of which is meant to imply that I possess any special clairvoyant abilities when it comes to divining the details of other people's expectations, or that the folks at Gallup have been making their services available to the record industry.

No, it's just that four minutes and 12 seconds of nearly tuneless layered keyboards and feedback drones accented by a cheap drum-machine beat and the occasional burst of atonal electronic bass is very likely not what anyone had in mind as an album opener for R.E.M. this time around, especially when it's followed by 70 minutes of some of the more challenging music this band have created in years -- heavy on the layered keyboards and strings, light on guitar riffs and straightforward backbeats, chock full of cryptic lyrics (which is nothing new, but, well, Michael Stipe really outdoes himself here) and exotic percussion embellishments. There are accessible, vaguely familiar moments: the galloping chorus of "Walk Unafraid" (with real drums), the "Stand"-style guitar hook that powers "Lotus," Stipe's oddly soulful vocal (Al Green comes to mind) on "Suspicion," the strange, skewed folk of "At My Most Beautiful" and "Sad Professor" -- but these are few and far between. There are no obviously close relatives to "Losing My Religion," "Everybody Hurts," or "What's the Frequency Kenneth" on Up, just distant twisted cousins of the hits that have put R.E.M. in a position where they actually have the clout to persuade a major-label to release this sort of album.

And what sort of album is that? Well, bassist Mike Mills, one of only three full-time R.E.M.-ers now that founding drummer Bill Berry's bought the farm (no, he's not dead, just farming), suggests in the Anthony DeCurtis-penned Warner Bros. "Media Information" for Up that it's a "headphones" album, which is usually what artists say when they've really made a mess of things. It's sort of like saying, "If you stand on your head and blink your eyes really fast, that painting looks really cool." Or, "You have to get stoned to watch that film." Mills goes on to offer a few more of the kind of choice words that make major labels shudder and begin scouring their rosters for baby bands to drop in the next fiscal year: "This could be a really good late-night, by-yourself, in-the-dark kind of record to listen to." And guitarist Peter Buck pounds a couple more verbal nails into the commercial coffin: "It's got a more baroque, arranged sensibility."

Baroque? "By-yourself"? Yikes! Wonder whether Stipe, Mills, and Buck were kicking themselves for letting Berry talk them into wasting the title Monster back in 1994?

For a band who have enjoyed a remarkably controversy-free 18 years in the rock business (no drug busts, rehabs, or excessive-speeding tickets, just a few little medical mishaps, questions about the lyrics to "Radio Free Europe," and those lingering doubts about the frontguy's sexual orientation), R.E.M. have nonetheless spawned a decent number of disagreements. There are those who believe, as legend has it, that four arty Athens college kids stumbled into fame and fortune, and those who're convinced that, like U2, R.E.M. have had some secret plan for world domination all along. There are those who argue that R.E.M. were always a conventional rock band with an arty veneer drawing on conventional sources like the Velvet Underground, Big Star, and the Byrds, and others who insist that R.E.M. were always an arty band with a conventional veneer drawing on unconventional sources like the Velvet Underground, Big Star, and the Byrds. And there are those who believe that R.E.M. cashed in on and ultimately corrupted the indie-rock underground of the '80s, and others who argue that without R.E.M. the expression "indie-rock underground" wouldn't even exist. What I think we can all agree on is that in some fundamental way R.E.M. created the very notion of commercial alternative rock that we're all living with today, and whether they did it by skewing the conventional or conventionalizing the skewed has more to do with questions of personal taste and politics than with those of musical form.

Up, I think, will have people raising once again these questions that have remained mostly dormant in the '90s (we've had bigger things to deal with, like, you know, who killed Kurt Cobain), because, unlike Out of Time, Automatic for the People, and Monster, it's not an album that goes down terribly easy. And unlike New Adventures in Hi-Fi, it can't be written off as something the band threw together for the hell of it during soundchecks on a tour. No, there's something intentionally unsettling, uneasy, unconventional, and, yes, challenging about Up that brings to mind the deliberate nonconformity of the band's first few releases -- the murky production, soft snare, clean 'n' jangly guitar arpeggios, mumbled vocals, and moody tone that set Chronic Town, Murmur, and Reckoning apart, not only from the slick commercial mainstream of their day, but also from the loud, fast rules of the post-punk underground and the quirky synth-pop of new wave. Those albums were a lot stranger for their time than most people seem to recall.

Stipe, who has stopped making sense again on Up, even refers to Reckoning on the new "The Apologist," where he repeats the "sorry" as if it were sort of mantra against a tension-ridden backdrop of dark guitar feedback, droning organ, soft drumming, and piano. It's "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" revisited without Berry's steady backbeat or the country comfort of the original. In a way, Up sounds like the left turn R.E.M. could have made after Reckoning but didn't -- where 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction might have headed if the sexy menace of "Feeling Gravity's Pull" had been the rule rather than the exception. Of course, that might not have left Berry with much to do. Up apparently employs two able drummers -- Screaming Trees dude Barrett Martin, who also plays with Buck in an instrumental side project named Tuatara, and Beck's pal Joey Waronker -- but neither is prominently featured on most of the new tunes. As Anthony DeCurtis aptly points out in the "Media Information": "A panoply of old-fashioned rhythm machines and analog synthesizers from Buck's private collection amiably gurgle, chug, blip, whoop, and clack through the entire album." Now that's a change.

And if at first, on the aforementioned opening "Airport Man" (a fragmented character sketch, as best as I can tell, about a guy in an airport who "moves efficiently" that draws its pathos from the idea that airports are some of the saddest, loneliest places on earth), the synthetic rhythms are a little distracting, eventually they become so woven into the fabric of the songs that you hardly notice. "Hope," for example, begins with a drum-machine beat over which organ and synths are piled until it barely makes any difference what's moving things along, especially since, as the song gains momentum, so do Stipe's lyrics, which appear to be addressed to a person dying of cancer, AIDS, or some other terminal condition. "You want to trust the doctors/Their procedure is the best/But the last try was a failure/And the intern was a mess," he sings, reminding us that he's often at his funniest when the subject matter is the saddest, and at his darkest when a song seems sweet on the surface, as on "The One I Love." Or on the new "At My Most Beautiful," which is ostensibly a love song with innocent Beach Boys background vocals, a Phil Spector-style orchestral production, and downright spooky obsessional lyrics like "At my most beautiful I count your eyelashes secretly." Or the new "Diminished/I'm Not Over You," where the singer's selfless proclamations ("I will give myself away") yield to a growing sense that he's on trial for the murder of his lover, whom he then serenades in what sounds like a short, home-recorded snippet of Stipe alone with a guitar (the "I'm Not Over You" part).

Up features some of Stipe's most personal lyrics to date, which is rock-critic code for "Good luck figuring out what the hell he's singing about." As always, there are just enough clues to keep listeners interested -- lines like "The bull and the bear are marking their territories" on the tuneful ballad "Daysleeper" -- but not so many as to give the plot away. Perhaps the most intriguing bits of verse are the ones that seem to suggest R.E.M. are pulling into the homestretch. "I have to tell you dear readers/I'm not sure where I'm headed," Stipe admits on "Sad Professor." And on "The Apologist" he croons, "Thank you for being there for me/Thank you for listening goodbye."

R.E.M. used to joke that they were going to break up on New Year's Eve 1999 -- right before Y2K in the current lingo. But then, they also once promised that if any member quit they wouldn't continue as a band. Up, however, doesn't sound like a last gasp or any kind of betrayal. It sounds like the band who invented the idea of commercial alternative have taken it upon themselves to figure out what comes next. Fortunately that doesn't involve making the same album over and over again. Up is a headphones album we can be grateful for.


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