With Sonic Youth, R.E.M. ranks as one the most venerable of the grandfathers of college rock. From the release of “Radio Free Europe” in 1983 to their breakthrough top ten hit “The One I Love,” from Document to the folksy poppiness of the quadruple platinum Out of Time, R.E.M. continually reinvented itself as it dramatically influenced two generations of bands and therefore the course of modern rock music. After attaining mass popular appeal, Automatic for the People, the band’s strongest effort since Murmur, introduced a quieter-sounding R.E.M.
But Michael Stipe and company, never satisfied with one style of music for very long, refused to be classified as mellow ballad singers with a social conscious from “Everybody Hurts” fame. The band proved that it could rock with 1994’s Monster. Next came the experimental New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which was both critically acclaimed and a commercial flop.
Then in 1997, R.E.M. announced that drummer Bill Berry, having already suffered a brain aneurysm on the Monster tour, wanted to spend more time with his family, and had decided to leave the band. Saddened by what seemed to be the beginning of the end of a great band, fans and critics alike questioned R.E.M.’s future. Would Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck stay together, would they continue to produce viable, influential music? Where would the band go without Berry?
R.E.M. answered these questions with its newest releaseUp. UnfortunatelyUp is an overly optimistic title for the band’s first post-Berry attempt. For a lesser band,Up would be a solid album, but for R.E.M., who wowed the music world with classics like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and “Losing My Religion,”Up is a sadly flat album.
The album’s first single, “Daysleeper,” a quiet commentary on the life of a night laborer, is relatively uninspired. Stipe’s poetically obtuse yet appealing lyrics (“the ocean machine is set to 9/ I’ll squeeze into heaven and valentine/ my bed is pulling me/ gravity”) cannot save “Daysleeper” from its own blandness.
This is true more because we’ve already heard “Daysleeper” than because it is inherently a bad song. It was great the first time R.E.M. released it as “Try Not to Breathe” on Automatic. The two songs have uncannily similar guitar lines and melodies. For a legendary band like R.E.M., this fall into the derivative is especially disappointing.
Had it only happened once, such borrowing could be forgiven. However, R.E.M. repeatedly delves into this territory. “Diminished” at first listen is seemingly a really good song. That is until one realizes that it is a catchy but lesser remake of “Drive.” The lyrics and rhythms are almost fully interchangeable. Like “Daysleeper,” “Diminished” was better the first time R.E.M. released it. Similarly, Up’s “The Apologist” is heavily reminiscent of Reckoning’s “So. Central Rain,” especially in Stipe’s highly emotive, but repetitive of chorus of “I’m sorry.”
Not all of R.E.M.’s borrowing is overly bland. The Brian Eno-influenced “Airportman” is one of the best songs on the album. A slow and sparse opening track, it provides great contrast to the harder-edged second track, “Lotus.” “Lotus” is one of the few songs that picks up enough speed to qualify as a rock song. The first four tracks hold one’s attention fairly well. The solid “Hope” doles some out, but the album then falls into a quiet and rather uninteresting sound.
One’s ears perk up at track eight, “You’re in the Air.” That is until, Stipe wails “in the air, in the air.” At that point, one could just as well pull out Radiohead’s The Bends and listen to “Street Spirit [Fade Out]” because Stipe’s attempt at Thom Yorke’s vocalization, while valiant, falls short.
“Walk Unafraid” featuring the lyrics “I’ll trip, fall, pick myself up and/ walk unafraid/ I’ll be clumsy instead. . .if I have a bag of rocks to carry as I go/ I just want to hold my head up high. . .help me when I fall to/ walk unafraid” chronicles the turbulent times the band has faced in the last two years. Up is at times clumsy and doesn’t compare to earlier R.E.M. albums. However, after losing a founding member of the band, it is quite understandable that R.E.M. would need some time to adjust and once again redefine itself.
One small step on this journey of redefinition is the inclusion of lyrics in Up’s liner notes. In the past, R.E.M. had shunned the practice, but with the new album, the band surprisingly included them. However, this move was combined with less interesting artwork than the band had used previously. The atmospheric photos of Adventures and the garish pop art of Monster decorated much stronger and more interesting albums.
Over nearly 20 years, R.E.M. has managed to effectively redefine itself. We can hope that Up represents only a temporary adjustment period and the band will again wow us with its creativity and vibrance. For the diehard R.E.M. fan Up is a worthy purchase, but everyone else might as well wait for the next release. For if the band’s long history is any indicator, R.E.M. will sound completely different on its next album.