R.E.M.: Up

Warner Bros.

ACCORDING TO THE September issue of Jane, R.E.M. considered naming their new album Alone in My Urine, a title that could be read as a somewhat melodramatic take on the band's current identity crisis. In 1998, R.E.M. is "stuck," in guitarist Peter Buck's words, "between being new and being legendary." And even if an upcoming appearance on Sesame Street suggests the group is closer to Valhalla than vitality, Pete does have a point.

With 1991's Out of Time, R.E.M. became famous enough to be, as Michael Stipe noticed, "recognized on the street by people who receive Social Security checks." That album's release also saw the band enact the first in a series of ritual disinformation campaigns that have accompanied the release of each new record this decade. Reporter: "What can you tell us about the new R.E.M. record?" Band member: "This record sounds nothing like R.E.M." Of course, it always does, except maybe not as good.

Keeping true to the ritual, the release of Up on October 27 was accompanied by the requisite threats of reckless experimentation and redefinition. There has been much discussion of "weird sounds" and "exotic percussion," "baroque" arrangements and "14 different keyboards." Would you believe that this record is "really psychedelic," "experimental," and overflowing with sounds "that you haven't heard before"? Indeed, even the band members themselves are wary of throwing people such a curve. It should be noted that in the R.E.M. universe, a "curve" usually means that bassist Mike Mills gets to play keyboards on a track or two, or that distortion has been added to the guitars, as on the band's foray into, er, rock music, 1994's Monster.

Yet, from the Byrds comparisons that greeted their arrival to Mills's choice in hairdressers, the group's impulses have always been essentially conservative. Half-assed covers of Aerosmith and Roger Miller aside, R.E.M. never trafficked in the kind of irony that brought the indie-rock scene they helped define to a grinding, smirking halt.

Even when crafting Pet Sounds simulacra as deliberate as Up's "At My Most Beautiful," there is nary a supercilious wink in the mix. Michael the Young Poet--in his idiosyncratically floppy-haired, pouty way--was just as interested in breaking on through as his classic-rock forebears. And Michael the Bald Grizzled Elder is just as intent on keeping it real as Warren Beatty is.

That said, this is a radical break, at least by the band's terms, which are the only ones they'd ever accept. Up's stylistic snafus come in the form of uncharacteristic genre-hopping and the kind of reference-happy pastiche-making one might expect from Pavement. But even Up's most endearing nods to the past--the Brill Building, Abbey Road, Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys--are traditional, if not plain banal.

When R.E.M. sounds like R.E.M., the result is Up's first single, "Daysleeper," which should find a nice home on AAA radio alongside old friend Natalie Merchant and Mike Mills's new golf buddy, Hootie. When R.E.M. sounds like R.E.M. except not as good, the result is the bulk of Up.

Yet the music on Up that initially appears to be the most radical departure for R.E.M. begins to sound, after a few listens, like the music you'd imagine they'd make 18 years down the line from their New South/new wave origins. Consider the much scoffed-at album opener, "Airportman," whose languid, amorphous orchestration evokes the taste, if not the texture, of "classic" early-period R.E.M. It hovers menacingly, but at a great enough distance to appear unthreatening, even inviting. Think of the wind chimes that underscore Reckoning's "Camera," and how they entered you and never left. Think of the artfully mangled clichés in Fables of the Reconstruction's "Good Advices." Think of the America that the young R.E.M created in its own image--haunted, inscrutable, and covered in kudzu--and remember that when you were feeling alone in your urine, R.E.M. was there for you.

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