Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Walking Unafraid

Athens' guiding lights keep their musical integrity

By Ben Taylor

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  R.E.M. has become the standard by which alt-rock is judged in the '90s. Read an interview with some up-and-coming band, and nine times out of 10, they'll credit R.E.M. as an influence. Why such adulation? For one thing, the group has maintained a substantial career while staying true to its own musical interests--something few alternative bands seem able to manage. From its beginnings as a jangly art-pop combo in 1981, R.E.M. has avoided the clichs of classic rock stardom. As a result, young bands see the group as a model for making it through the music business with your integrity intact.

Hard times, nonetheless, have recently befallen the band. After a six-year hiatus from touring--during which the band turned into studio hermits and produced two great records (Out of Time and Automatic for the People)--R.E.M. decided it wanted to be a rock band again. The results were a tour that almost killed drummer Bill Berry and two muddled, mediocre records (Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi). (The latter, to add insult to injury, was its lowest-selling release in a decade.) When the band reconvened to write and record in 1997, it was in for an even bigger blow Berry decided he'd had enough of rock stardom and quit. Most longtime observers anticipated R.E.M. would call it a day. After all, no matter how arguable or negligible Ringo's talents were, John, Paul, and George would never have made a record without him.

Thus the surprise when Michael, Peter, and Mike announced that they'd be going on without Bill. Immediate reactions were understandably dubious. No one wanted to see R.E.M. become a cartoonish imitation of their former selves like, say, the Stones did when Ron Wood joined. Not to mention the fact that 15 years into its career, R.E.M. would seem to be hitting a musical mid-life crisis: How to grow old gracefully? All of these concerns and suspicions only serve to make the group's 12th album, Up, a delightful and endearing surprise.

R.E.M. plays it smart by facing the fact that it'll never again be the band that made Murmur or Document. In Up, the group dispenses with Scott Litt's clean, guitar-driven, and glossy production--a good decision, since, under his hand, the last two records had a workmanlike feel. After 10 years of working with Litt, R.E.M. decided instead to enlist Pat McCarthy, who has worked with Counting Crows and U2. McCarthy turns out to be a welcome addition to the fold, enabling the band to enlist more studio and electronic elements while retaining a wholly organic sound.

Replacing R.E.M.'s jangly, folky guitar-pop smarts is an esoteric sound that eschews melodic hooks in favor of creating a mood. Buck's guitar is always present but serves as an added brush stroke on the canvas rather than the dominating image. Berry's absence is both acknowledged and ignored: R.E.M. does use drum machines on several songs, but they sound more like Casios recorded in the kitchen sink than the hi-tech electronics you hear on records these days. Other songs use capable stand-in drummers such as Joey Waronker. The results reveal a band that sometimes sounds anxious and uncomfortable, yet loves the challenge. For the first time since R.E.M. hit it big, the group comes across as, well, humble.

"You're looking like an idiot and you no longer care," Michael Stipe sings on "Hope," a twitchy, driving track that leaves the listener breathless by song's end. The lyric seems to illuminate R.E.M.'s current situation: Its greatest successes are in the past now, but rather than play it safe and continue to churn out the tried-and-true, the band members choose to push the envelope. That's exactly why R.E.M. has had such longevity in the first place--and it's what ensures the band will have a future. Stipe acknowledges this most clearly in "Walk Unafraid," when he suggests that "if you see familiarity, celebrate the contradiction."

R.E.M. also rejects the familiar by printing Stipe's lyrics for the first time. I always suspected that the lyrics were never printed before because they might look silly without the musical backdrop. That's true at least some of the time: I have no idea, for example, what "I'll be pounce pony, phony maroney" is supposed to mean. For the most part, however, Stipe takes a welcome break from his sensitive martyr routine, and instead the lyrics on Up create character sketches to complement the moody soundscapes. A shy lover ("At My Most Beautiful"), a self-pitying drunk ("Sad Professor"), and--perhaps--a duplicitous president ("The Apologist") all serve to create a cast of characters that lets you forget this is R.E.M.--which is nice. So often, bands of R.E.M.'s stature are too self-absorbed to sing about anything other than themselves.

In the end, Bill Berry's departure may have been the shot in the arm R.E.M. needed--something to make the other members reconsider who they were as a band. After listening to Up, their decision to go on seems less a disregard for Berry than a jibe at the idea that anything is sacred. R.E.M. started out as four guys who love to make music. Berry's departure appears to have reminded Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills that they're still three guys who love to make music.

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