Album Review – R.E.M. – Up

As I’ve noted previously, while I was a major fan of R.E.M. in the band’s early (I.R.S. era) days, by the CD era, I began to tune out. Again, it was only partly a function of my feeling that the band’s sound no longer lined up with my tastes; I was a late adopter when it came to CDs, and around the time of Monster, vinyl was effectively a non-option.

So I’m a latecomer to the band’s post I.R.S. catalog. And to my delight and surprise, I find that there’s much to like. And as it happens, the very last of the group’s albums to find its way to my ears is 1997’s Up. I know there’s a brand-new “25th Anniversary Edition.” but this review concerns the vinyl configuration, issued as a 2LP set.

Wow, “Airportman.” What a strange way to open an album. For a moment I thought I was listening to Kid A outtakes. The murky, downtempo vibe bears nearly no resemblance to any of the musical characteristics I’ve come to associate with R.E.M. On top of that, it’s just… uninteresting. The song goes nowhere. It’s an inauspicious way to open an album.

Equally unexpected is the next track, “Lotus.” Stipe’s squawking “Hey hey!” that introduces the tune suggests funk or r&b. As the tune unfolds, the arrangement moves toward something that vaguely resembles the group’s sound. And by the sort-of-chorus, the tune has settled into a more conventionally melodic vibe. It’s still miles away from prime R.E.M., but it’s not terrible. On one level, Michael Stipe’s bid to deliver a different sort of vocal is admirable. In practice, though, it’s only moderately successful. Peter Buck’s guitar doesn’t figure largely into the arrangement, but when he inserts a lick, the tune brightens. Exceedingly spare use of horns adds a subtle dash of flavor, but it’s so subtle that you probably wouldn’t have missed it if it weren’t there.

Electronic drums and Wurlitzer are joined by strings on the chill-vibe “Suspicion.” The tune isn’t melodically adventurous, but as a mood piece, it works, and well. Stipe’s sleepy vocal suits the song’s character. One keeps wishing that the melody would go somewhere beyond the two-chord vamp that forms its backbone, but in its own modest way, “Suspicion” is nice enough.

“Hope” opens with a skittering, propulsive electronic percussion and synthesizer bed. To my ears, it’s the sound of Stipe singing in a video arcade. Listeners who grew up on “Sitting Still” wouldn’t likely even recognize it as Athens’ finest, but Stipe’s vocal is very much like him. Had the song been arranged in a guitars/bass/drums style, it could have worked that way as well, but it would be a different song. I can’t help wonder what this tune would have sounded like (and looked like) in concert. I suppose if there’s any live footage of Human League, that might provide a clue. The splashes of acoustic piano are nice, but as with some of the previous tunes, “”Hope” doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere. The final 30 seconds of the song are the best.

The acoustic piano that introduces “At My Most Beautiful” suggest that we’re finally – five songs into the record – in for something special. And the tune delivers. The songwriting values that informed R.E.M.’s best work (in a ballad vein, anyway) are wholly present here. There’s still little in the way of “band” character. This far into the record, I find myself thinking that Up could easily have been marketed as a Michael Stipe solo album.

The snaky, hypnotic “The Apologist” feels a bit more like the group we knew and loved. Keyboards continue to dominate, but the song at least feels like a logical progression from the music R.E.M. made in the past. The insistent lyrical repetition is effective, and Buck’s distorted lead guitar riffs are quite welcome. In fact, “The Apologist” is easily the strongest track on the record so far. But that it took until the sixth song to get this good is a troubling development.

Ah, finally: some guitars. That was my first thought upon hearing “Sad Professor.” Some simple, soulful acoustic chording opens the song. E-bow guitar comes in, and then a tasty electric rhythm guitar. The song is melodic, and it keeps hinting that it’s going to take off into something bigger. Yet it never does. There’s a pervasive feeling of – I guess one might call it – restraint on this and most everything else so far on Up. What’s behind that, I do not know.

“You’re in the Air” serves up Mellotron and more canned percussion. Buck’s appealing guitar work is buried in the mix; the tune suggests R.E.M. might have been listening to a lot of Martin Denny. The elements of the song are all lovely, but yet again, the tune feels underdeveloped. Only around the four-minute mark does some simple guitar picking take the song somewhere slightly different. Yet in total, the guitar and keyboard textures add up to something alluring.

On “Walk Unafraid,” the group makes Up‘s most effective use of Peter Buck’s guitar. There’s a simmering, sinister quality to his work here. The tune unfolds into a wide-screen arrangement, and while it still has that persistent holding-back quality, here it works; the tension builds, releasing on the bridges. The tune would have been out of place on earlier R.E.M. albums, but like “The Apologist,” it delivers something with which fans of the band’s earlier work have at least some chance of connecting.

The melancholy “Why Not Smile” offers some intriguing sonic elements, but the unfinished quality persists; it feels like a bunch of worthy elements were marshaled in support of something less than an actual song.

The most well-known song on Up, “Daysleeper” hearkens back to Out of Time with its gentle acoustic guitar and accordion. A lilting 3/4-meter beat draws the listener in. The song is easily the most fully-developed piece on the record (at least so far). For once on this record, it feels like Buck, Stipe and Mike Mills are all fully engaged in making memorable music.

“Diminished / I’m Not Over You” keeps the quality going. It feels like something that might have served as an interlude on earlier records, but it’s quite evocative and hypnotic. The song is (again) reminiscent of the quieter moments on Out of Time. The end bit feels tacked on in the manner of the White Album’s “Can You Take Me Back,” but it’s inoffensive.

With piano treatment that suggests Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” “Parakeet” is a fetching melody. By this point in the album, the listener will have resigned him/herself to the inevitable: Up ain’t gonna rock. An overwhelmingly introspective character – a kind of gloom, really – seems to hang over the entire affair. It’s title notwithstanding, the album is a largely downcast, morose-feeling collection of songs. More than once I’ve found myself wanting to shout at the turntable, “C’mon, guys!”

Alas, no. Up concludes with “Falls to Climb.” Some clever lyrical turns aside, the song is more melancholia. There’s absolutely nothing on Up that’s bad. If created by most any unknown group, the record could be thought of as a fascinating, moody sonic excursion. But from the group that gave us so many great songs, it feels like a disappointment.

If the objective of R.E.M.’s 11th album was to cast off the group’s reputation as makers of guitar-based, indie-rock classics, well, then mission accomplished. But while early R.E.M. albums successfully straddled introspection and accessibility, on Up, the group seems wrapped in a navel-gazing cocoon of its own, isolated from the larger world. It was their first release without drummer Bill Berry, and a listen will leave listeners wondering just how critical Berry must have been to the group’s musical aesthetic.

Succinct verdict: unmemorable, half-baked, a few mid-to-high points, not a disaster. Happily, R.E.M. would find their way back toward the light on their next release.

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