Thursday, October 26, 2023

REM #12: Reveal

Release Date: May 14, 2001

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Mike Mills (bass, keyboards)

Additional Musicians: Scott McCaughey (keyboards, percussion) Joey Waronker (drums); Ken Stringfellow (keyboards)

Produced by Pat McCarthy & REM

Side One: The Lifting; I've Been High; All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star); She Just Wants to Be; Disappear; Saturn Return

Side Two: Beat a Drum; Imitation of Life; Summer Turns to High; Chorus and the Ring; I'll Take the Rain; Beachball

By 2001 REM had achieved carte blanche in terms of their career. They were a rich rock band with total creative freedom and a loyal fan base supporting their tours and buying their records. Their legacy was set in stone. Musically, rock and pop no longer commanded the youth market like in decades past. The way consumers were interacting with music was in flux with the internet becoming a Wild West for free downloads and with streaming just around the corner. Part of REM's new mission was assuaging their fan base through reissues, live albums, and collections of unreleased tracks. 

New albums were no longer the centerpiece of a REM's existence, with them becoming cottage industry on their own. Reveal is a stellar album, less experimental than Up, yet seemingly tailor made to be what one would expect from REM. But a subtle unease traverses through the slick lyrics and hypnotic melodies. 

Like most REM tracks, "The Lifting" benefits from multiple listens. Written as a prequel to "Daysleeper" from Up, it's about an office drone who once had high ambitions about life. With its dreamy pop intro that could open a Cardigans song, but there's an emphatic frustration with the character, a figure who imagined a life of color, but it's still black and white. It also contrasts dreams with mundane nature of life, drawing a comparison to " A Day in the Life." 

"I've Been High" applies a retro '80s pop sound, with recurring REM imagery of water, the sky, and falling. "All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna be a Star)" follows a familiar character, a young woman trying to break into show business, musically it feels like a spiritual sequel to "Man on the Moon." Michael Moore directed the playful video for the song, following REM as they visit a Catholic High School in Brooklyn and mingle with the students. 

"She Just Wants to Be" could possibly be about the same character from the previous song, a track celebrating experiencing the world, but also complicating the sentiment. "Disappear" follows a world- weary character on other side of the spectrum of the young person in the precious song, always on the elusive search for meaning and finding nothing, eventually preferring to leave the world. "Saturn Return" continues in a similar vein, the lyrics are labyrinthian with Stipe's haunting vocal and the rich soundscape creates a sublime mood. 

Some have read "Beat a Drum" as a tribute to Bill Berry who left the band to become a farmer, weary of touring and shaken after a brain aneurism, Berry chose the quiet life. The song's themes of transcendentalism also draw parallels to Emerson and Thoreau. "Imitation of Life" could be read as the band satirizing themselves, with its overtly sweet optimism. "Summer Turns to High" also revels in darkly sweet imagery, with hints of Pet Sounds. "Chorus and the Ring" is lyrically the most adventurous. A melancholy resignation sustains "I'll Take the Rain." "Beachball" ends the record on a low key vibe in a jaundiced vision of paradise. 

Musically and lyrically Reveal offers everything one would expect from REM, bright melodies, and sublime lyrics. I marginally prefer Up because of its less constrained style, there's an uneasy insularity on Reveal, a safe record in the best possible sense. 

Saturday, October 21, 2023

REM #11: Up

Release Date: October 26, 1998

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Mike Mills (bass, keyboards)

Additional Musicians: Scott McCaughey (keyboards, percussion) Joey Waronker (drums); Barrett Martin (drums)

Produced by Pat McCarthy & REM

Side One: Airportman; Lotus; Suspicion Hope; At My Most Beautiful; The Apologist; Sad Professor; You're in the Air

Side Two: Walk Unafraid; Why Not Smile; Daysleeper; Diminished; Parakeet; Falls to Climb

With the departure of drummer Bill Berry, REM continued on as a trio, employing a handful of session musicians on keyboards and percussion. Up was recorded throughout 1998, with members working more as individuals and exploring electronica sounds under the influence of Radiohead. Barely on speaking terms at times, it took a three-day retreat in Idaho for the band to air out their differences and deciding whether to continue. 

Up opens with "Airportman", a gently melodic soundscape of electronica, influenced by Krautrock. "Lotus" introduces the spiritual themes on the record, with its surreal lyrics and pop-electric sound. "Suspicion" is in a neo-psychedelic mode, with stream of consciousness lyrics, in one of Stipe's most evocative vocals yet. "Hope" borrowed its melody from Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne", lyrically the song is directed at someone unsure if they should go in the science or religion route in trying to make sense of mortality.

"At My Most Beautiful" is a pristine piano ballad inspired by Brian Wilson. Aural waves and reverb sustain "The Apologist," with its moody themes of compromise and control. "Sad Professor" is a character sketch of melancholia similar to REM's earlier interest in eccentric characters. 

"You're in the Air" is a love song, baroque, and haunting thought Stipe's vocal. "Walk Afraid" marinates in existential angst, a secular prayer. "Why Not Smile" drowns in earnestness and honesty, which makes the sentiment even sadder. "Daysleeper" offers poetic reflections on modern life, globalization eating away at the soul of Gen X, prescient in its sentiments and somewhat reminiscent of "Fakin It" by Simon and Garfunkel. "Diminished" is the longest track at six minutes, lyrically ambitious with more wordplay and striking imagery, in the fadeout Stipe performs a fragment of "I'm Not Over You." 

"Parakeet" is a metaphorical in how we can trap ourselves, "Falls to Climb" brings the introspective themes of Up to a proper conclusion. 

Up offers a variety of dreamy melodies and rich themes. Musically, REM was updating their sound with elements of Brit Pop and electronica, while maintaining their thematic preoccupations on life and how to live it. Stipe continued to expand his vocal range, often inhabiting the characters in the songs. New Adventures in Hi-Fi was their farewell to the 1990s, Up had them looking forward to the 2000s. Record sales declined in the US, but the record performed better in Europe. With their days of mainstream success behind them, Up signaled REM was settling into becoming a niche band. 

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers #2: You're Gonna Get It

Release Date: May 2, 1978 Members: Tom Petty (vocals, guitar); Mike Campbell (guitars); Benmont Tench (piano, organ); Ron Blair (bass); Stan...