Imagine, if you will, that it’s 1984. You’re a serious fan of R.E.M., owning and treasuring their debut EP Chronic Town and the pair of albums they released, 1983’s Murmur and 1984’s Reckoning. The brooding jangle, the cryptic and indecipherable vocalisms of Michael Stipe, the band’s groundbreaking and resolutely indie mindset. But suddenly, you’re captured and placed into cryogenic stasis. When you awake, it’s 17 years later. Once you regain your composure, you discover that the band from Athens, Georgia has a new album, Reveal. So you listen.
And you don’t know quite what to think.
My own experience isn’t all that different, albeit without the freeze bit. As I’ve related previously, I was an early fan of the group, but they sort of lost me by the time of 1994’s Monster. I recall seeing images of a shaven-head Stipe, with a bright blue stripe painted across his face. What? I remember thinking that R.E.M. and I had somehow moved in different directions. Honestly, I didn’t hear anything they released post New Adventures in Hi-Fi until more than a decade after the band called it a day.
On the occasion of a new vinyl reissue of Reveal, however, I’m going to set aside my preconceptions as as best as I can and review the album on its merits. (Coverage of 2008’s Accelerate will follow.)
In one sense, the album’s opening track, “The Lifting” bears traces of RE.M.’s mid-period sound. But the smudgy, noisy and cluttered arrangement feels woozy and deliberately unfocused. It’s as if a pop song of sorts is buried amid the murk, but it’s hard to identify the outlines of it. At times the song sounds as if another very different song is playing at the same time; the crosstalk is unsettling and prevents (this) listener from fully engaging with the song. Such an approach worked brilliantly for Radiohead, but the murky aesthetics don’t seem to suite R.E.M. as well.
“I’ve Been High” opens with some glitchy sonics that recalls Suzanne Vega’s 99.9F°. The tune shifts into a meditative mood, and it becmoes clear that on their second album without founding drummer Bill Berry, R.E.M. is beginning to come to terms with his absence. Real and/or electronic percussion figures prominently into the song. What’s else that’s missing – and this will prove to be a defining feature of much of Reveal – is Mike Mills’ voice. On previous records, his vocals – whether in harmony, as response to Stipe’s call, or as a countermelodic device – aren’t employed at all. To return to my cryogenic construct for a moment, it’s as if what one awoke to was not an R.E.M. album at all, but instead a Stipe solo project.
Happily, “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)” has much of the classic R.E.M. character to recommend it. Peter Buck’s guitar jangle enlivens the song, a tune that would have fit seamlessly on Out of Time a decade before. The tune certainly doesn’t rock in any significant way, but it features a strong melody and some wonderfully heartfelt Stipe vocals (but again, no Mills vocals). Buck’s spaghetti western tones coexist nicely with some understated gurgling synth textures.
Buck’s acoustic guitar informs “She Just Wants to Be,” another song that balances familiar R.E.M. character with its late-period sound. A sweeping arrangement unfolds eventually; it’s almost Spectorian in its sweep. And this time – unlike “The Lifting” – the woozy arrangement works. Buck’s soaring guitar leads fly over the whole thing.
That noisy, clattering quality returns on “Disappear.” Sawing cellos flit in and out of the mix, and the song’s waltzing ¾ meter – a technique applied to many of R.E.M.’s ballad-leaning compositions – evokes memories of 1992’s Automatic for the People. The piano-centric, static and somewhat triphoppy “Saturn Return” suggests that the band has spent a lot of time listening to OK Computer and Kid A. Indisputably great as those albums are, it remains an open question whether the world of 2001 needed two Radioheads.
Speaking of piano, that instrument forms the core of “Beat a Drum,” a lovely and crystalline ballad redolent of Carole King. The drum machine textures even work, giving a slight bossa nova sheen to the arrangement. By this point, listeners seeking a rocking R.E.M. may begin to suspect that they’ll come away empty-handed. But as mellow and melancholy music goes, “Beat a Drum” is a winner.
And then comes “Imitation of Life.” Buried deep into Reveal – it’s the second track on Side Two – the song combines most everything that makes major-label era R.E.M. a treasure. The record’s strongest melody, a soaring arrangement with beautiful string part, the song even features some vocal harmonies, the first time such has appeared with any prominent on the album. The band must have known they had something special on their hands, as “Imitation of Life” was released as a single, and it took the #1 spot on the Adult Alternative charts. (Adult Alternative? I guess that’s where we were with R.E.M. in 2001.)
“Summer Turns to High” returns to the dreamy vibe. It’s a gentle and lovely song, with some nice Leslie-effected guitar work from Peter Buck. There’s a vaguely 10cc character to the song. But again, Berry is missed, as is Mills’ vocal work (if it’s there, it’s hard to discern).
Acoustic and baroque textures figure into “Chorus and the Ring.” Faraway gunshot percussion, accordion and other bits of filigree adorn the song. It’s a pretty melody, but the song has the feel of an intro that never breaks into the song itself. Buck opens “I’ll Take the Rain on acoustic; this is at least the fourth time on Reveal that he’s done so. Mills’ bass — a key ingredient in R.E.M.’s appeal – finally gets some prominence. The elegiac tune shimmers and shines, with the arrangement building, pulling back (with ghostly bits of pedal steel here and there) and expands again.
That electronic feel return for an odd and uncharacteristic closer, “Beachball.” The horn work and wood-block drum machine suggest what might happen if Herb Alpert and an ‘80s synth band got together. There’s also a vaguely late-sixties Beach Boys feel to the track; maybe that explains the title?
Reveal certainly improved upon its predecessor, 1998’s Up. It’s not fair to measure R.E.M.’s 12th long player against its debut made nearly two decades earlier. A perplexing album in many regards, Reveal shows R.E.M. at a curious point in its history. And while it never rocks, viewed against the backdrop of popular music in 2001, it’s a very good record, one that’s far better than one might have expected.