BIG HAIR BANDS, grunge, break dancing, Air Supply: R.E.M. have seen them all. It looks as if Athens's finest jangle-poppers have even withstood a second wave of boy bands. Over the past two decades, R.E.M. have survived a slew of musical trends by staying a half step ahead of the hip without leaving the masses behind. In the process, though, the band has become an aging rock dinosaur, fighting extinction by constantly trying to evolve into new musical life forms.
R.E.M. have switched identities with as much fervent self-consciousness as Michael Stipe changing T-shirts during 1991's MTV Video Music Awards. Back in the Eighties, R.E.M. jumped from the art house to the mainstream on the basis of their cryptic pop canvases. A decade later, when 1991's Out of Time was released, the band stepped out of the quicksand of murk and jangle onto the solid ground of a more elaborate pop. Then came the midlife crises: The band went from 1992's Automatic for the People--a gothic meditation surprisingly devoid of electric guitars--to the dirgelike glam of 1994's Monster, to the raucous refocus of 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi. And when drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997, the result was their most fractured mood swing ever: the dark and difficult Up. These disparate efforts to stay relevant were often bewildering to fans, and by the end of the Nineties, some were wondering if Berry should have dragged the band into retirement with him.
Yet R.E.M.'s latest album, Reveal (Warner Bros.), has helped them regain a sense of musical identity by donning some familiar costumes. There are no new gimmicks this time around, just the same band embracing more complex keyboard textures and untraditional arrangements. Perhaps Reveal's sound is recognizable in part because the "new" R.E.M. have recycled many of their old hooks. Even the casual fan will recognize songs like "Imitation of Life," with its strong melodic nod to "Sidewinder Sleeps." "All the Way to Reno" features a catchy guitar riff much like that on "Drive." And the epic rock swells and swooning vocals on "The Lifting" make for yet another energetic opening track along the lines of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" But while the more awkward moments on Reveal are simply the rehashed products of R.E.M.'s nostalgia, the best parts are further explorations of the band's lush melodies
The only obvious stylistic change on Reveal is the emotional, rather than the usual hyperintellectual, tone to the lyrics that complement R.E.M.'s musical arrangements. Lines such as "I've been high/I've climbed/So high/But life sometimes/It washes over me" (from "I've Been High") are undoubtedly clichéd, yet they provide the perfect accent to this offbeat, psychedelic tune. Does this mean that Stipe is going soft between his ears in order to make room for expansive melodies in his aural cavities? Most definitely, but if Reveal's compositions are not as challenging as R.E.M.'s past albums, they tickle the tympanic membrane in a more pleasing way.
It's hard to watch R.E.M.'s youthful passion for change wane, because it makes us, their fans, feel older. Yet Reveal is not--to paraphrase a line off 1998's Green --just an example of R.E.M. standing in the place where they were. The album is a renewal that successfully relies upon the familiar touchstones of their classic sound. No amount of eyeliner can bring Stipe and Co. back to their college-rock days of yore. So the next time we push them toward using more genre experimentation in lieu of youth serum, perhaps we should realize that this is not a reflection of R.E.M.'s identity crisis. It's a reflection of our own.