||At My Most Beautiful
||You’re In The Air
||Why Not Smile
||Diminished & I’m Not Over You
||Falls To Climb
All songs by Buck, Mills, Stipe except 4 by Cohen, Buck, Mills, Stipe.
Released: 26th-27th October 1998.
Record Label: Warner Bros.
Since every new direction needs a signpost, here are a few of Up's: Sweetness Follows, How The West Was Won & Where It Got Us, Camera, Country Feedback. And here are some things not to expect along the way: Man On The Moon, Shiny Happy People, The Wake-Up Bomb. Anything that might have made it onto Monster. Much has already been made of Up's strangeness. It will certainly sound strange to those who only own Automatic For The People and repeat-play the hits. Conversely, anyone who has a healthy number of R.E.M. records - let's say four - and plays them regularly, should manage to listen to Up without his head exploding or tossing herself off a tall building or any of the weird things people are meant to do when faced with music they don't quite understand. This is R.E.M. after all.
We couldn't even hear the lyrics until album five. Up differs radically from the album that preceded it, as did Monster before it and - more successfully so - Document. There are synthesizers on it (of which much more later). There are drum machines - something it shares with Everybody Hurts (that was a Univox Rhythmer, tech fans). But what it brings into the world is exactly what Monster (Tongue excepted) and New Adventures In Hi-Fi didn't, and that's beauty. Opener Airport Man is both Up's template - a cool network of simple keyboard lines stuffed through an array of scruffy, Byzantine effects - and the most thoroughly alien track on the album, something that could have appeared on Brian Eno's Another Green World. Stipe groans the words - something about lives led unenlightened, where ''great opportunity awaits'' but is ultimately ''discounted'' - sotto voce, not keen to engage.
Putting Airport Man first was a bit clever; as if they were saying, If you can take this, you can take anything. People who think they only like guitar records might be surprised by how they feel about Up. R.E.M.'s great knack is to make everything they play sound organic. The most synthesizer-heavy tune is Hope, basically Leonard Cohen's Suzanne (he's credited) incorporating Suicide's warm, buzzing, slightly unhinged keyboard sound. The layering is spectacular: deep squelches, snippets of a Mike Mills harmony warped and etherealised, snatches of discordant electric piano, these enter as punctuation and leave having taken the tune to another level.
The fear was that R.E.M. playing keyboards would sound like old dogs trying embarrassing new tricks. The fact is they sound comfortable with the instrumentation and are pushing the capabilities of it from the off. For the most part, in fact, it's difficult to tell what's a synthesizer and what's a guitar, since Buck is flanged and phased and fedback to buggery as an, ahem, synthesis of technologies is established early on. Suspicion, for instance, overlays the wom-wom-wom of a synth-bass with a see-sawing guitar reminiscent of Nirvana's unplugged About A Boy and picks out the bones of the song's doubt-wracked seduction story with a needling xylophone, courtesy of Screaming Trees, Tuatara and now R.E.M. part-timer Barrett Martin.
The texturing throughout is ripping stuff and only on The Apologist (Stipe says ''sorry'' a lot on Up) - a dark folk song laced with metallic organ and distant industrial clanks - and the murkier Walk Unafraid does the instrumentation drag the songwriting into a gothy cul-de-sac. Elsewhere, the new - let's zoom in on Why Not Smile's gamelan introduction and its ''Heroes''-style treated guitar outro - lives quite happily next door to the old: the chiming acoustic guitars of Sad Professor providing the most heart-pluckingly beautiful moment of R.E.M.'s career so far. And that's saying a lot. If they've missed long-time producer Scott Litt (purged as part of the pro-Jefferson Holt faction when the manager and ex-fifth member left in 1996) you couldn't say where. And while Bill Berry's drumming had its merits, it's hard to imagine him clunking all over Up. Japan's Steve Jansen - wherever he might be - could have suited the gig, but as it is, Messrs Martin and Univox Rhythmer seem to have it covered. An R.E.M. story: when Peter Buck first brought Drive to the sessions for Automatic For The People, Bill Berry and Mike Mills were not impressed. ''It makes no sense whatsoever,'' they complained.
''It just goes round and round.'' A lot of R.E.M. songs go round and round, and if Up has a weakness it's a surfeit of round-and-round songs. It lacks something brash, a transfiguring chorus to drag 'em in, and quibblers might add that sticking Diminished, Parakeet (not a metaphor, it's about a parakeet) and Falls To Climb together at the end makes for an unsprightly close. On Up, only Lotus solicits the adjective anthemic, where a croaky Stipe becomes a feisty incarnation of the naughty human race (''that monkey died for my grin'') and Buck tacks a tangy, aluminium guitar riff to the beginning of each verse. If it is large and memorable enough (and sufficiently ''R.E.M.'') to be a second single it may be the only song here that is. Yet Up's bashfulness brings with it a peculiar grace. First single Daysleeper is the paradigm, Stipe imagining himself a besuited financier and matching the acoustic guitar echoes of Everybody's Talkin' with the exquisite sadness of ''I cried the other night/I can't even say why''. It is full of compassion and typical of Up, R.E.M.'s first record about life - rather than about the problem of being R.E.M. - since Automatic For The People. Now it can be said: R.E.M. have had their heads up their collective ringpiece for a while, and New Adventures In Hi-Fi - so tiresomely tour-frazzled (''I'd rather be anywhere, doing anything'' went The Wake-Up Bomb. ''I'd sooner chew my leg off than be trapped in this'' rejoined Bittersweet Me) - could practically see its own teeth.
Up is full of accessible stories, and - its biggest surprise - includes Stipe's truest love song, At My Most Beautiful. The metronomic piano, tingling chimes and tuba-emulating synthesizers build a Beach Boys pastiche, while Stipe lilts ''I read bad poetry/Into your machine/I save your messages/Just to hear your voice''. Historians have a little game called ''What if...'', wherein they ask - at their historian parties - if World War I would have happened if the King of Greece hadn't been bitten by his pet monkey. Here's a less controversial ''What if''. What if R.E.M. hadn't chosen to play a lot of gigs in 1995; mightn't their last two albums have been loads better? Monster wouldn't have been a transparent attempt to pen a few tunes to glue a live set together and New Adventures In Hi-Fi wouldn't have been recorded at soundchecks and might have sounded more elegant. Of course, then we wouldn't have got to see R.E.M. again and Bill Berry would still be in the band, in which case Up wouldn't sound like this. That would be a shame. Here's another. What if the five million R.E.M. buyers who passed on New Adventures In Hi-Fi are similarly untempted by Up, this long, slow, synthesizer-based, cussed old cove of a record? Maybe there'll be people tossing themselves off buildings chez Warner Bros as $80 million is consigned to the swanee, but maybe not. If the success of Radiohead's OK Computer proves anything, it's that there is a market for warped, experimental rock music as beautiful as this. Hearing New Adventures In Hi-Fi now, it has one astonishing aspect: it sounds like a traditional guitar-bass-drums group beating itself to death. After that, maybe the only way was Up.
By Danny Eccleston.