Review Summary: Upside Down and In the AirR.E.M.
fought their way out of oblivion to overwhelming success and popularity, releasing one multi-platinum record after another through the 80’s and 90’s. The critical hyperbole that greeted New Adventures in Hi Fi in 1996 seemed only to confirm that R.E.M.
could do no wrong.
Then Bill Berry departed. Like the Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M.
compensated for the loss of their drummer by redefining their sound with a slow, electronic album. Like Adore, Up confounded the many fans expecting commercial and accessible pop tunes. With both groups, the changes didn’t (and couldn’t) last: The Smashing Pumpkins ditched their new sound to embark on a botched ‘return to rock’ with MACHINA while Stipe and friends recalled the sunny pop of Out of Time with the meandering Reveal which, though at least not the career-killing disaster that was MACHINA, still failed to recapture their fan base.
The irony in both cases is that the albums that sparked these downhill slides into abysmal were near-masterpieces. Up represents R.E.M.
at their most innovative and daring. “Airportman”, easily the most challenging song on the album, is the opening track while the only pop tune, “Daysleeper”, is buried in the second half.
Fans, predictably, were split between the most dedicated who were willing to try out something new and the camp that liked “Daysleeper” and not much else. Indeed, the emphasis on electronics that left most fans and critics scratching their heads (Pitchfork’s review flat-out dismisses the album instead of reviewing it) does seem to work against the band’s talents – parts of “Sad Professor” and “The Apologist” feel a bit strained by the treatment. But otherwise the change in technique is pulled off admirably.
At over an hour in length, Up is an immersive experience that never drags. “Airportman” perfectly establishes the atmosphere with a transfixing combination of jittery guitar chords and machine-like tones that would sound right at home on a Radiohead album. It fades into a nothingness from which “Lotus” storms in with a fury of psychedelic rock that, again, recalls Radiohead. The remaining twelve tracks exist to some degree between the opening pair with “Suspicion”, “You’re in the Air” and “Diminished” as meditative experiences like “Airportman” and lighter-weight tracks like “Hope”” and “Daysleeper” as riveting rock tunes similar to “Lotus”. Album highlights like “Lotus” and “Walk Unafraid” integrate the new elements seamlessly while “Why Not Smile” deliberately places these changes at the forefront as electronic noises overpower deceitfully simple lyrics.
Closer “Falls to Climb”, one of the group’s most lyrically profound songs, wraps it up on a high note that recalls “Country Feedback” from Out of Time. Stipe delivers a bravura vocal performance as he pleads “Why not me"” in a reflection of a deep desire for martyrdom. His final cry of “I am free” is appropriately operatic for an album so full of vibrant emotions and ideas. Up, more than any other R.E.M.
album, takes time to unlock. But it’s also perhaps the most rewarding.