R.E.M. – Up

Up (1998)

B

1. Airportman 2. Lotus 3. Suspicion 4. Hope 5. At My Most Beautiful 6. The Apologist 7. Sad Professor 8. You’re In The Air 9. Walk Unafraid 10. Why Not Smile 11. Daysleeper 12. Diminished 13. Parakeet 14. Falls To Climb

 

After his aneurysm, Bill Berry had an epiphany and decided he’d prefer to spend the rest of his days knee deep in cow shit inside a barn than onstage with REM, so after the release of New Adventures, for which there was no tour, he retired to his farm in Athens, leaving Buck, Mills and Stipe to precariously carry on as a trio. Now, there aren’t many instances in rock history where the loss of a mere drummer could have as devastating an impact on a band as it did in this case, but REM are—or were—just that kind of band – where each member’s contribution to their sound and image was so integral that REM without any one of them would not really be REM. And the kind of band that once swore to break up if any one of the members left, and to never lip sync in a music video, before realizing they could make millions of dollars by doing both. So they did them. Now, to be fair, Berry’s only condition upon his departure was that the band not break up, and if they threatened to he would unhappily remain with them. So the trio pressed onward, managing to produce Up and almost breaking up anyway in the process over internal tensions. But they made it through and remain intact, 13 years later.

The conundrum the band must have found themselves in approaching the making of Up is pretty clear. Should they continue making nominally “REM-like” music without Bill and accordingly become, essentially, an REM tribute band a la the Two, er, ahem, the Who? Or should they revamp their sound to an extent that a comparison between the old REM and the post-Berry REM would be more difficult to aptly make? They wisely opted for the latter scenario, though I can’t say their new direction exactly made anyone forget about their old one. Up is ahead of its time, though, presaging the electronic-based, ethereal aesthetic that would come to dominate a large portion of indie rock in the first decade of the 21st Century. And, just like that strain of music, Up is really slow and mopey and doesn’t really rock at all. I’m serious; Radiohead love this album. They’ve said so. And I’d say Radiohead are roughly as good as this album.

What? Yeah. Radiohead are boring band with an uncanny knack for atmospherics and effectively panning bloopy keyboard sounds around your headphones that elevates their mostly uninteresting songs, and Up is a boring album with an uncanny knack for atmospherics and effectively panning bloopy keyboard sounds around your headphones that elevates its fairly interesting songs. The world’s legions of Radiohead fans are convinced that Radiohead are “like, the best, most creative, most awesome band ever. I’m super duper serial,” so I’ve no doubt I’ll be strung up if anyone ever actually reads this, but I’ll stand by it. Maybe if Up had Thom Yorke’s stray cat whines all over it instead of Michael Stipe singing, everyone would love it too? I’ll gladly take it the way it is, of course.

Look, it’s not like these guys always sound like they know what they’re doing here. They’ve mostly ditched the guitar, first of all, leaving them license to fumble around with their new electronic toys and see how many cool noises they can make until a song comes out. Occasionally, they end up sounding very misguided – see the opener “Airportman,” the band’s attempt to imitate a washing machine during a particularly dull rinse cycle, and likely the worst song they’ve ever done (what is that hideous grinding noise that keeps stabbing through the mix? An electric whoopee cushion?). However, for the most part, I’m more than willing to be enveloped by the spacey, cold keyboard ‘n drum machine atmosphere that Up presents. And the appeal is pretty much all in the atmosphere, because Michael isn’t exactly coming up with a ton of hooks in the vocal melody department, and when they are there, they’re often understated so as not to ruin the mood (“Suspicion”). Still, there’s no doubt Mills and Buck managed to come up with some strong tunes here. Throw an orchestra on “Why Not Smile” and drop it onto The Soft Bulletin and I doubt too many people would notice… it’s got the naively optimistic Wayne Coyne-esque lyrics and everything! All it needs is Wayne’s rumpled gray suit that he hasn’t washed in two months and a bunch of confetti and voila! It’s a Flips classic. Stipe’s “be yourself” anthem “Walk Unafraid” even has a semi-rocking, if muddily executed, chorus and has accordingly become a live favorite for the band. “Lotus” is stilted 70’s keyboard funk, but I’m wild about Stipe’s ostensibly obnoxious, nasally vocals, and Buck’s spiraling, distorted riff is his only electric guitar part on the album that is particularly distinct. All these songs are aided greatly by the care they put into the mix job and all those interesting keyboard tones. In fact, the most “normal” song here, the lead single “Daysleeper,” is OK but annoyingly out of place – it’s as if they didn’t want to freak out their fans too much so they deliberately wrote a song in the style of Automatic For The People even if their hearts weren’t in it. On the other hand, “Sad Professor” is all guitars (and no percussion) and rules, so there you go.

I can’t deny that there are some major problems with this album. It’s waaaaaaaay too long, for one, even more so than New Adventures – I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about what “Parakeet” or the verses of “You’re In The Air” sound like they’re so indistinct and blah. Even “At My Most Beautiful,” one of the album’s more popular tracks, makes me a little uneasy because it’s such a blatant indicator of the band’s latter-day Brian Wilson fetish that would soon grow to devour them completely – though, unlike later efforts, this one at least has the songwriting to back it up. So I can say with extreme certainty that this album does not need to be another 64-minute slogfest. Also, if you hate Michael Stipe, you’ll probably find this album insufferable, because he’s turned up way too loud in the mix and singing these woe-is-me, cripplingly self-important lyrics all the time. But man, you know what, the most lyrically pretentious song on the album, “Falls To Climb,” is also the most melodically strong and emotionally affecting, so I won’t complain too much.

I think if Up turned out to be REM’s final album, as was originally planned, it wouldn’t be judged as harshly as it is. In the context of what happened after, it’s viewed today as the beginning of an era that many see as one in which the band has attempted to milk a dry well for all its worth, and as very much part of an Unholy Trinity of post-Berry REM albums along with Reveal and Around The Sun. But I don’t buy it. It sounds great on headphones and I enjoy listening to it. Has anyone ever said that about Around The Sun? Yeah, I don’t think so.



2 Comments

  1. Emily wrote:

    I would like to add my support to the “Radiohead are really boring” campaign. Although I feel pretty much the same about REM. I wish their catalog wasn’t so massive…I’m ready to read reviews of albums I actually listen to! =P

  2. UP is one of my favourite R.E.M. albums and the tour they did in support of it, with Joey Waronker on drums, is my favourite era of R.E.M.


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