R.E.M.'s latest album, "Up", ironically finds the band in the same pensive mood that produced their midcareer masterpiece "Automatic for the People", which is the closest they've come to the quiet, soft-spoken gem of their first album, "Murmur". They've got a lot of things to think about: as aging rock stars in a culture that seems to increasingly prefer R&B, rap, and genre revivals from disco to swing, R.E.M. are striving to forge their own unique path through pop music's tortuously twisted history without losing their relevancy. And for the first time ever, they're attempting it without one of their original members.
Drummer Bill Berry's departure from the world of music last year left a gaping hole in what had been rock's steadiest and least ego-stratified lineup (R.E.M. has always credited all of their original material "Berry Buck Mills Stipe", the alphabetically order of the band members' names). Though often considered the least influential band member (vocalist Stipe and guitarist Buck get unspoken credit for much of the band's songwriting), his solid backbeats and leanings toward traditional pop hooks have gone a long way towards R.E.M.'s popular success.
Though this album is their weakest since the abominable "Monster", whose forced attempt at loud rock was shamefully close to a bar band trying to play grunge three years after it went out of style, it is more a stumble than a fall from grace. The songs are quiet and often beautiful; the album as a whole sounds like a collection of private demos that somehow found it's way into the public's hands. But the weaknesses are as much a tribute to the departed Berry as they are a sign of the band trying to find its way in unknown territory, an unspoken eulogy from the remaining band members that although they'll go on without him, things will never quite be the same.
The album leads off with "Airport Man", a spare arrangement where Stipe's baritone rumbles above the staccato tick-tock of a drum machine, punctuated by the occasional synthesizer. Stipe's vocal hearkens back to "Murmur", where Stipe would intentionally slur all but a few lyrics in order to create expressionistic meaning with his words. In this case, all but "great opportunity", "airport", and "labored breathing" are virtually indecipherable (although, oddly enough, the group has for the first time ever included a complete lyric sheet with the CD), painting a picture of loneliness, empty greed, and the unfulfilling ambitions of corporate culture.
The second song, "Lotus", has a funky groove courtesy of guest drummer Joey Waronker of Beck fame, which works even though it should be out of place on this album, the loud uncle at a funeral who is more interested in the crab puffs than he is in paying his respects. "Suspicion" returns to the same tone set by "Airport Man", a dream of a song that wouldn't have been out of place on "Automatic for the People". "Hope" is an endless run on sentence ruminating on the nature of meaning and religion in our information-saturated society, driven by mechanized drums and a repetitive, synthesized guitar riff. It covers the same themes as the "New Adventures in Hi Fi" tune "New Test Leper", but without the irritating moral superiority.
"At My Most Beautiful" is the most sincere love songs R.E.M. has written in a long time; it is also their most direct homage to Brian Wilson and the "Pet Sounds"-era Beach Boys, whose influence wanders through the songs on this record like the melody to a forgotten song. "Why Not Smile", another of the standout tracks, is also heavily influenced by this sound, using simple drum beats and layers upon layers of keyboard, piano, and bass parts to build a very complicated structure from a pretty basic foundation.
"The Apologist" one of the few weak tracks on this record; dark chords and a sinister, shuffling drumbeat are probably meant to evoke a bad mood, but that doesn't mean that it's any fun to listen to. The same goes for "You're in the Air", a meandering, gloomy song that doesn't seem to have a whole lot to say. These two are sandwiched around "The Sad Professor", which starts out a little weak but climaxes with an irresistible chorus. "Walk Unafraid", which Stipe says was his mantra while making this record (it's not surprsing then that he also says this is his favorite song) isn't terriblein fact the chorus is one of the catchier parts of the recordbut it is unfortunately bogged down by plodding guitar and bass parts during the verses.
It's pretty clear why the record execs chose "Daysleeper" as the first single; it's music sounds the most like R.E.M.'s earlier work, particularly "Automatic for the People". The quiet desperation, evoked in lines like "my night is colored headache grey" and "flourescent flat caffeine lights", has the feel of Radiohead's "OK Computer", and it succeeds on the same level that the best songs on that album did. "Diminished" and "Parakeet" are both intriguing but ultimately forgettable. The album ends on a strong note with "Falls to Climb", a touching ode that feels like modern day hymn written from the martyr's point of view.
This isn't one of R.E.M.'s best albums, but some of the songs here rank among their best work ever. More importantly, this record demonstrates that they aren't afraid to take chances. It would be easy, even safe, to stick to the formulas that they know work, especially in the wake of losing a member for the first time in their twenty year history. But they prefer to push their boundaries even still, creating music that can be equally challenging and rewarding. R.E.M. demonstrate once again that they have the strength to walk unafraid into uncharted musical territory. When it works, it's brilliant.