Grown Up

R.E.M.'s new adventure in hi-fi is its finest in years

Sometimes Up rocks; "Sad Professor" sounds almost like a Who demo, down to fall-down-drunk imagery and the windmill guitar chimes. Sometimes it howls: "Hope," the disc's fourth song, literally mutates into an overwhelming drone at its climax, unleashing unsettling white noise until it's almost unbearable. Imagine standing behind an airplane when it takes off; you can almost feel the heat on your face. It's a perfect song for Stipe's more-audible-than-normal lyrics (included in a lyric sheet for the very first time): "I'm lost in the confusion," he sings, his timbre flat yet so gorgeous. "And it doesn't seem to matter."

But there is no way R.E.M. could have toured in support of Up. To have performed a record this intimate in an arena would be like dropping a pebble in the Grand Canyon; it would get lost, make no sound, reduce an event into insignificance. Even its more uplifting moments are sad, quiet, unabashed: The strings that wash through "You're in the Air" are the sound a tear might make as it streams down a cheek; when Stipe sings, "I remember standing alone trying to forget you," you can almost hear his loneliness.

"At My Most Beautiful" perhaps offers the record's most revealing moment: It sounds as though lifted straight from Pet Sounds, down to the pretty doo-doo-doo-waaaah harmonies, the piano-and-timpani-and-bass-harmonica intro. But it's more than a pretty respite, following the climactic howl of "Hope." It's also a love song that sits between sentiment and obsession: "I found a way to make you smile," he sings, almost through a grin. "At my most beautiful I'll count your eyelashes / Secretly." It's such a wonderful image, and not a little creepy; here's a man who finds love in the details--and who pens a love song and says "at my most beautiful," not someone else's.

It will likely be written that Up is R.E.M.'s most accessible record; it has space enough to let anyone in, even if it's not so shiny and happy as some of its more recent forerunners. Those who wish to can dissect Stipe's lyrics and ponder his dissatisfaction with religion, his belief that spirituality is in here and not out there; the man almost begs for it now, putting his words out front for the first time. But never has this band made more celebratory music; never has R.E.M. made a record that begs to be listened to over and over again because it just feels good to have it playing in the background or through headphones. It's a reassuring record, somehow, proof that every now and then, a band doesn't grow old. It just grows up.

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