REM - Up (Warner Bros, 1998)
Conventional wisdom dictates that REM are a great band who have lost their purpose, and that new album ‘Accelerate’ represents some sort of ‘return to form’. From the two tracks I’ve heard so far, it certainly returns them to sounding like a conventional rock group (albeit one with real energy, a quixotic temperament and artful musicianship). This simplistic assessment is inadequate. It only provides an incomplete, one-sided picture of the group’s period of reconfiguration following the departure of drummer Bill Berry. During this time, they revitalised themselves as a major touring group par excellence but produced a trilogy of albums that disappointed even their most ardent supporters.
‘Up’ was by some distance the bravest of these albums, born out of frustration and fractious relationships within the group, and completely revising the band’s working methods. The problem with the albums that followed it (the impressionistic ‘Reveal’ and the tepid ‘Around The Sun’) was not that they had too much in common with ‘Up’, but rather too little. They sounded over-produced, sentimental, hazy and vague, whilst ‘Up’ sounded skeletal and vulnerable, subtle and mysterious. Indeed it’s hard to believe that the same producer (Pat McCarthy) helmed the controls for all three albums.
‘Up’ is a long album that takes numerous listens to appreciate, and many listeners (fans and critics alike) did not seem to have the necessary patience. Musically, it is a mature work rich in complex feeling and sensations, and lacking immediacy. Whilst there’s no shortage of writing describing ‘Up’ as an incoherent folly, it is now my favourite REM album by a country mile. This is at least in part for personal, subjective reasons, but it’s also because it is an audacious and compelling album that retains the core virtues of REM’s songwriting style, whilst filtering them through very different arrangements and processes. It stands completely apart from the rest of their catalogue and is an album I can return to at any time and still discover new riches and previously concealed brilliance. Playing it last night at home, my flatmate came in and said ‘hang on, that sounds like Michael Stipe’. Having not heard it before, he clearly thought it was a Stipe solo project, so little like REM does it sometimes sound. Actually, it’s anything but that, and in spite of the apparent terse atmosphere during its recordings, successfully combines the distinctive musical personalities of all three of its creators.
When it was released, Michael Stipe came out fighting (in more than one sense), giving a number of his most candid and direct interviews, and expressing his sincere satisfaction with the finished product. Now, the band seem to have almost rejected it – playing few of the songs in live performances and, at least until ‘Accelerate’, self-consciously striving to satisfy Warner Bros. with a modernised ‘Automatic For The People’. There were a handful of moments on ‘Reveal’ that attempted to develop the intricate web of ideas and attention to detail found on ‘Up’, but ‘Around the Sun’ abandoned such concerns, preferring blandly strummed guitars, plodding tempos and woolly atmospherics. Although writers concentrated on the increased prevalence of keyboards, synthesisers and drum programming on ‘Up’, Peter Buck’s guitar remained a crucial presence, his peculiar distortion and simple figures adding much in the way of texture and mood. That he absented himself almost entirely from the worst moments of ‘Around the Sun’ was greatly to that album’s detriment.
Having attempted to demonstrate why it’s unfair to bracket ‘Up’ with ‘Reveal’ and ‘Around the Sun’ in a trilogy of disappointment, it’s now worth considering its own inspired and unique merits further. The group stated their intentions from the outset with the enigmatic ‘Airportman’, Stipe’s voice reduced to a hushed monotone amidst bossa nova drum programming (an insistent rhythm, completely uncharacteristic to the group, that is repeated all over the album) and floating keyboard textures. It’s the most alien, peculiar track that REM have crafted to date and immediately betrays the more European influence that predominates the album (‘Hope’ and ‘Walk Unafraid’ also hint at ‘Krautrock’ acts like Neu! or Harmonia) and provides a coherence that most critics seemed unable to uncover.
Everywhere there is a vivid attention to detail and meticulous concentration on how the songs sound. ‘Suspicion’ rests on a melody so subtle it is almost backgrounded, and many found the rudimentary drum machine uncomfortable (as if it was something REM shouldn’t be doing in the sudden absence of a drummer!). Yet, there’s the lingering melancholy of Barrett Martin’s Vibraphone (also playing a pivotal role on the sublime ‘Diminished’), and the way the song suddenly lifts towards the end, Stipe’s voice shedding some of its restraint and reaching a new level. The group pitted the sea-shanty melody of ‘The Apologist’ against an intriguing concoction of brushed drums, heavily distorted, swelling guitars and more familiar arpeggios. It sounded like a stark, industrial refashioning of their tendency towards gothic balladry.
Beneath all this fascinating weirdness, there were also plenty of more familiar elements. The irresistibly saccharine Brian Wilson stylings Mike Mills brought to ‘At My Most Beautiful’ and ‘Parakeet’ made the former cute and charming, the latter hypnotic and immersing. The use of pedal steel guitar had previously made the likes of ‘Country Feedback’ overwhelming and haunting, and, for these ears at least, imbued the emotional trial of ‘Diminished’ with a similarly devastating impact. Initially, I found ‘Daysleeper’ the most typical and characteristic song on the album (and the only obvious choice of first single), but what interests me about it now is the way the group merge their familiar acoustic tropes with sampled sounds and noises that really capture both the otherness and frustrations of nocturnal living.
Lyrically, ‘Up’ found Michael Stipe grappling, in frequently fascinating ways, for new techniques and means of self-expression. Sometimes he even seemed to be battling against himself. For a lyricist who frequently prefers stream-of-consciousness, surrealism and absurdity, he can often be disarmingly direct. ‘Losing My Religion’ may have become an anthemic powerhouse, but if one actually focuses on the lyric (one of the clearest encapsulations of unrequited infatuation I’ve ever heard), it becomes almost unbearably intense. A number of the songs on ‘Up’ (‘At My Most Beautiful’, ‘Diminished’, ‘Walk Unafraid’, ‘Falls To Climb’, ‘The Apologist’ and ‘You’re In The Air’) really flesh out this confessional approach. The setting of these very human and candid words (‘I want you naked, I want you wild’, ‘Hold my love me or leave me high’, ‘someone has to take the fall, why not me?’, ‘I will give my best today’ etc) to music that often feels stark and cold (in a positive way) gives ‘Up’ a disorientating and unsettling air of menace with its emotional clarity. Yet on ‘Why Not Smile’, the sentiment is so direct as to sound trite, Stipe enhancing the sense of irony by delivering the song in a flat monotone. It seems to be poking fun out of conventional love songs, yet the accompanying harmony is so straightforward and pretty that it could be one of those love songs – it’s very similar to the technique used so masterfully by Stephin Merritt in his various guises. Then there’s the unexpected interjection of the unlisted ‘I’m Not Over You’, just Stipe alone with an acoustic guitar, as pure and exposed as he’s ever sounded. The desperate loneliness of ‘Sad Professor’, brilliantly enhanced by Peter Buck’s unexpected bursts of guitar noise and the delicate underpinning percussion, even saw Stipe writing in character, something he doesn’t seem to have done much before or since.
I was only 17 when ‘Up’ was released, and only a handful of the tracks struck an emotional chord at the time (perhaps the most obvious examples). Yet as I’ve grown older, I’ve found the songs acquire a new and more direct personal resonance. ‘Daysleeper’ suddenly assumed a very obvious importance during the year I spent working night shifts for a television company, whilst ‘Walk Unafraid’ strikes me more as I become more accustomed to addressing some of the more personal aspects of my life publicly. It’s always gratifying to find an album that can follow and track you through the various stages of your life (as can Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Grand Prix’ for me), and I strongly suspect I will be drawing new insight and resonance from ‘Up’ for many years to come. Beyond that though, it’s such an unusual and mesmerising creation, in many ways as unforgiving as Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ (I actually much prefer it to that album, but we’re on controversial ground here). Yet whilst Radiohead followed ‘Kid A’ with very successful juxtapositions of preoccupations old and new (best realised on the alchemical ‘In Rainbows’), REM failed to live up to that challenge. It's possible that this was because 'Up' sold respectably, but nowhere near enough to recoup Warners' 80 million dollar investment! Ironically, in addressing more commercial concerns, the group only served to diminish their audience further. I hope ‘Accelerate’ restores some faith in the group, but it also saddens me that they couldn’t take some of the very promising new adventures from ‘Up’ to their logical conclusion.