It seems like forever ago that R.E.M emerged from Athens, Georgia, looking like art-school students who drove pickups to class (except for Michael Stipe, who probably rode his bike). What has it been now--17 years since the first single? How time flies when you're having no fun at all. That R.E.M. even exists now seems almost incomprehensible, especially when so many of their contemporaries have died on the roadside, abandoned by their fans like Paul Westerberg's discarded beer cans. Pylon, the dB's, the Replacements, HYsker DY--all gone, mostly forgotten by all save the most ardent diehards who went to college before college radio meant The Edge without commercials. They're symbols now and not much else--vestiges of a time when music fans existed as a collective, before being different meant being just like everyone else. They were alternative before the word meant "alternative to good music"; they spoke to the audience because they were the audience, guys who stepped out of the crowd and onto the stage and shared their insides (and beers) with everyone. Here comes a regular--and there he goes.
Now, Paul Westerberg is nothing but a plugged-in James Taylor, bouncing between labels and producers until his passion becomes product; never has a hero so let down his faithful. And Bob Mould is out there on last legs, swearing this record will be his final rock record, as though anyone's left to pay much attention. Which leaves only R.E.M. as the last band standing, the final vestige of a time when rock and roll seemed to belong to anyone who had the temerity to plug in, turn it down, and let the world in. They were an indie band for only one single, 17 so-long-ago years back, yet they birthed the movement known as "indie rock," even more so than the Replacements or HYsker DY. The bastardized term doesn't really mean music released without major-label ties; it has more to do with a sound--one that's homemade, crafted in a bedroom, done when the rest of the world is off to work or sound asleep. It means music for its creator; the audience is secondary to the process, though if you happen to identify with it, feel it in your bones, then welcome to the club. We feel your pain. In Michael Stipe's case, even when you can't quite understand it.
Yet Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry were not so revolutionary as rock-crit history would portray them; they didn't change the world, not even when they went platinum with 1987's Document. Their earliest records were Southern rock of a melancholy variety, the Byrds as played by young men raised on punk rock's promise; Chronic Town and Murmur and the masterful Reckoning were beautiful, lush but never opulent, beckoning even if Stipe mumbled his tenebrous poetry beneath Peter Buck's learn-as-you-go guitar playing. They turned pedestrian rock and roll into the stuff of art; never before had anything so pretentious sounded so fragile, rough-hewn. Their rock and roll was almost like folk music. It belonged on a front porch. Too bad it didn't stay there.
As soon as R.E.M. hit the arenas a decade ago, in support of Green (a record coated in gold plate before it ever left the warehouse), they began believing they needed to turn it up in order to make themselves heard in the back row. There were a few steps back toward home along the way (1992's Automatic for the People remains this decade's masterpiece, offering proof you can whisper and rock all at once), but 1994's Monster and '96's New Adventures in Hi-Fi proved they had lingered too long in the sheds. Their music, once so delicate and approachable, began to crumble beneath all those Pete Buck guitar solos and all those Michael Stipe poses. Suddenly, it all felt like noise and affectation. They had become an R.E.M. tribute band.
So perhaps the abrupt departure of drummer Bill Berry last year is indeed the best thing that could have happened to R.E.M. this far into the game. Instead of just making one more record to fulfill its $80 million deal with Warner Bros. Records, R.E.M. was forced to reconsider its position, to face its future--or its demise. (The band had long promised to break up if one of its members left. Liars.) And so Up, its 11th full-length record, becomes the truly new adventure in hi-fi for a band of veterans. It is where they pick up and move on, where they pare down the sound until Up sounds like New Adventures cut not on the road or during sound-checks (as 1996's debacle was) but, yes, in the bedroom. It's the most intimate record made by a superstar act since Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.
Berry has been replaced, in only the most rudimentary sense of the word, by Buck's Tuatara bandmate Barrett Martin and Beck's drummer Joey Waronker; also fleshing things out are ex-Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey and veteran indie-rock producer John Keane. But the sound they make is not a completely unfamiliar one, something that will alienate those true believers who still pine for "Driver 8" and "Gardening at Night" during concerts. The songs are simply expanded and contracted in the right parts; keyboards murmur in the background until they sound like a heartbeat--imagine "Man in the Moon" merged with "Country Feedback" and the ground in between, the sound made when Southerners discover the world is theirs. When Stipe beckons you to "sing along" on "Diminished," finally he sounds like a man wanting you to join in.
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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.