R.E.M. - Up


(Warner Bros.)

First Appeared in The Music Box, July 1999, Volume 6, #7

Written by John Metzger

Wed July 14, 1999, 12:00 AM CDT


Since releasing the magnificent masterpiece Automatic for the People in 1994, R.E.M. has been stuck in a rut. Monster seemed to be created for the purpose of a large arena tour, containing songs that virtually were loud retreads of the band's older material. The group's next album New Adventures in Hi-Fi offered a few more promising moments, but the collective still appeared to be struggling to find direction.  In other words, over the course of the past several years, it has been an extremely frustrating time to be an R.E.M. fan simply because the ensemble's popularity has been growing exponentially, despite an obvious lack of creativity. It took the unfortunate departure of Bill Berry for R.E.M. to cut loose and begin moving forward, and while Automatic for the People remains the collective's best outing, there are moments when its new album Up comes damn close to surpassing it.

Losing a core member can cause groups to reexamine themselves. In essence, it's a litmus test for a band, and while many fail to regain their composure, R.E.M. has come through in spades. On Up, it explores a variety of new directions and it offers an array of dramatically different effects. It also doesn't hurt to have studio wizard Nigel Godrich along for the ride on half the tracks. Godrich contributed significantly to Radiohead's OK Computer, and it's no surprise that he worked his magic for R.E.M. on Up. A cosmic vortex of sounds from the tempestuous Lotus to the layered atmospherics of The Apologist swirl throughout the album, and each song is a brightly colored sonic portrait. In addition, the band's music and lyrics meld together to create an overpowering ambience.  For example, Airportman is a dreamy excursion that conjures the disoriented mood that pervades the United Airlines terminal at Chicago's O'Hare airport.

There's a playfulness, too, in the way that R.E.M. incorporates its influences into Up's music.  The band borrows a line from The Mamas and The Papas' California Dreamin' for The Apologist, following it with a perfectly timed pat of a tambourine. Two songs later, it appropriates that tune's introduction for You're in the Air. On At My Most Beautiful, the group liberally pulls from Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, fusing beautiful harmonies with majestic piano chords.

In addition, Up may be R.E.M.'s finest lyrical outing, and the fact that it actually printed the words in the enclosed booklet can only mean that front man Michael Stipe thinks so too. The songs deal with a variety of topics from insecurity to Berry's hospitalization, and they hold a multitude of meanings within meanings. It remains to be seen as to how R.E.M. will execute a tour in support of Up. Many of the compositions on this disc are far too complex and subtle for the spacious acoustics of outdoor amphitheaters. Nevertheless, it's good to see that the band is back on top of its game with a whole new bag of tricks. starstarstarstar


Of Further Interest...

Andrew Bird - Noble Beast

Natalie Merchant - Motherland

Various Artists - Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy


Up is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!



1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


Copyright 1999 The Music Box