This album shows R.E.M. in a difficult stage of its existence. Apparently, finding a replacement for retired drummer and co-founder Bill Berry was out of the question, thus they were more or less forced to re-invent themselves. The outcome was, at the very least, interesting.
has been mowed down by critics worldwide for being
a) ridiculously long
b) ridiculously inaccessible
c) ridiculously synthy
and a first listen seems to acknowledge all three. Most of the compositions are simplistic, minimalistic even, and crammed full of keyboard and guitar effects. Dynamically, not much seems to happen. In short, it comes off as a demo mixed by a talented engineer that has yet to be discovered so he can afford some good equipment.
But this is R.E.M. The band that recorded Automatic for the people
. It does not feel right to write them off as "the band that suddenly lost every talent due to the departure of their drummer". We have to assume that this album somehow deserves its place in R.E.M.'s discography. Heck, was Monster
a good album" No, but it contained some good material and led to the fine New Adventures in Hi-Fi
With this new-found insight (and ignoring the fact that this led to another slightly disappointing album, Reveal
), let's give the album a few more listens. And behold, Up
reveals (no pun intended) more and more strengths among its weaknesses.
, for example, is a beautifully constructed ballad about an alcoholic who realizes he's wasted his life. Michael Stipe sings his grief (If we're talking about love/then I have to tell you/dear readers/I'm not sure where I'm headed
) with incredible nuance over some basic chords strummed on an acoustic guitar. An overdriven guitar subtly adds some feedback effects until it takes over the rhythm job in the chorus. Stipe limits his capability to sing in a high key to one line in the chorus (I started, I jumped up
), thereby showing that he can dose his talent and does not feel the need to show off. The song breathes sadness and regret, and is an easy favorite.
Another song where Stipe's vocals excel is You're in the air
, which may be a little too spacy but is still a very good song, featuring a beautiful string arrangement as well. Based on a folky guitar melody the verse segues into an eerie, eclectic, desperate chorus. Note how effortlessly Stipe drops an octave at once in the third chorus!
effectively abuses the format of Leonard Cohen's Suzanne to relate how others can ruin your life (You want to trust the doctors/their procedure is the best/but the last try was a failure/and the intern was a mess
) and there's no help from higher hand to be expected either (You want to trust religion/and you know it's allegory/but the people who are followers/have written their own story
). The frantic yet monotonous distorted keyboard and drum computer accompaniment fits perfectly.
is another ballad that grows with every listen. Again based on some basic chords and a great melody, the chorus is spiced up with a slide guitar and the song falls still at 1:51 after which is rebuilds, which is one of the highlights of the album. It's one of the shortest songs and the only song that should have been longer.
Still, this is not a good album by any means. It's too full of ideas for good songs that sound rushed and overproduced to conceal this (Lotus, The Apologist
) or just plain bad ideas (Suspicion, Airportman
). Tracks like At my most beautiful
are courageous attempts at bringing more recognizable new influences into their music (respectively Beach Boys and Queen). As much fun as they are, they add to the already vast inconsistency of Up
The album ends with the semi-euphoric Falls to climb
, featuring what may be the weirdest arrangement yet. Percussion is limited to some weak sounding snare drumming which doesn't start until after three and a half minutes. The rest is mostly lots and lots of late seventies synthesizing with that annoying vibrato. Stipe manages to save some of it by doing another excellent performance, but still the song just seems to say "We know that you are disappointed by all this and so are we, but it's the best we could come up with."
In conclusion, Up
is mainly a document that shows R.E.M. as an inventive band with willpower, courage and broad potential. This, along with some wonderful songs, helps forgive a lot of the mistakes made on the album. Thus the 2.5, though "average" is not a good description for it. "High highs and low lows" fits better.