R.E.M. - Up
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Ultimately, I think, the true test of a band's body of work is time. Not just the passing of it (although that helps), but by which records you find yourself spending the most time with, almost against your will; the ones your hand drifts to when you want to hear that band again, and especially the records you find coming to hand more often than you would have assumed.
I had always assumed that the era of R.E.M. which would play the biggest part of my life would be the from the justly-lauded Automatic For The People through to this album, or in other words the records they put out from when I was 11 until when I was 17, back when R.E.M. were my favourite band. But when I want to hear R.E.M. it's usually not Automatic For The People I reach for, or the ever-under appreciated Monster (still R.E.M.'s best rock album, but that's an On Second Thought for another time), and most surprisingly to me it's not New Adventures In Hi-Fi; it's Up.
At the time I adored New Adventures In Hi-Fi; it was one of my favourite albums by anyone and the one I was most likely to press on you if I was trying my hand at conversion. I still think of it as an excellent record, but the last two or three years it has utterly failed to grip me the way it used to, and while I've never quite fallen out of love with it, the evergreen Up seems more and more like R.E.M.'s best album as years pass. I wouldn't have guessed it, and left in the hands of theory I would have nominated something else, but the brute facts of my listening life are such that you're a lot more likely to hear “Parakeet” or “Sad Professor” coming from my room than “Orange Crush,” “Stand,” or “Man On The Moon” (as great as those songs are).
To be fair to the fans who have never gotten a grip on Up, I'm more than willing to admit that if it had come out a few years later, or if I'd been older, I might never have kept at it. At that time in my life a new album from R.E.M. wasn't something I might or might not have liked, and so I simply listened to the record until it made sense to me. Without that kind of blind faith in the band, I can understand why one might walk away before Up inches beneath your skin.
But, and here's where I really begin my plea for reconsideration, I think that same kind of blind faith played and plays a huge role in the current popularity of a record like Kid A. Aside from the critical back-and-forth circling around that album, the actual listeners, the actual fans, seemed to mostly react with mild bafflement. They loved Radiohead, they thought Thom Yorke and his band were geniuses, and so Kid A must be the work of geniuses. And sure enough, in the intervening years, they have given it enough time and attention that their initial hesitant proclamations of greatness have outgrown their tentative nature.
There are records that lurk far enough away from the boundaries of what you expect from a band or a genre that unless you give it time to work on you, to slowly redraw the map of your expectations, you'll never really love them. I guess theoretically all music does this, and bad albums are the ones we decide aren't worth the time. My contention here, borne out of years of living with Up, is that this record is worth the time. It is such a strange and beautiful thing that any misgivings will be more than worth the result.
It is, for R.E.M., an exceedingly weird sounding record. Bill Berry, of course, had just left and although it seems now that this loss would prove fatal for the band, at the time they temporarily shuffled aside their lack by focusing on the freedom they suddenly had. R.E.M. was now a trio, and the only thing keeping them sounding like they always had was themselves. So they stopped.
Except for Michael Stipe's voice and occasional hints of Peter Buck's old guitar sound, Up sounds wholly unlike the R.E.M. of the past. It is, for starters, much more sonically beautiful on the kind of level that headphones reward, with far more diverse sound than their standard guitar/bass/drums. It mostly skips the heavy, rocky tone of their last two album for mid-tempo songs that occasionally burst out into glorious Technicolour (“At My Most Beautiful,” “Walk Unafraid,” “Daysleeper”). The low key, eerie songs like “Parakeet” and especially opener “Airportman” (the closest they come to Radiohead) murmur softly in your ear but keep the new sense of slink, of subdued sensuality that is brought the fore by their sudden lack of a drummer as good as Berry.
And make no mistake, this is R.E.M.'s sexiest album. Long uncomfortable with so much as writing a love song, Stipe here continues the unthawing that New Adventures In Hi-Fi's glorious “Be Mine” began with songs like “You're In The Air”:
I want you nakedBut it's not just lyrical; even something as dry and crumbly as “Airportman” has a soft sway to it, and a track like “Suspicion” finally develops what was embryonic on Monster tracks like “Tongue” and “You”. Even though the sounds on Up are very precise, very clean (enough so that it's hard to tell which seven of these songs are the ones mixed by Nigel Godrich without looking at the liner notes), there's an appealing looseness to the feel of this music. Even the yowling glam stomp of “Lotus” hits the hips as much as anything, a marked contrast to a song like “The Wake Up Bomb.”
I want you wild
I want the stars to know they win
Give me that smile
Just give it me
Just turn it on; I'm lost again
And then there's the individual heart-stopping moments, almost too many to list: The sawing strings at the end of “Lotus,” the muted trumpet softly blossoming underneath much of “Diminished,” the endless uphill digital climb of “Hope” as it's slowly subsumed into piano, the almost-sitar in “The Apologist,” the way “Why Not Smile” slowly unfolds until you're wrapped in its warmth, the Eastern motif that twangs out after the chorus of “You're In The Air,” Mike Mills' backing vocals (sadly missed for most of the record) underlying “Suspicion,” the way “Parakeet” seems to shiver as Stipe sings “open the window” and the entirety of the closing “Falls To Climb,” which sees Stipe abandoned and singing his heart out with only some wavering tones until a quiet marching drum comes in at the end.
These are moments and songs that stack up next to anything I've heard from any area of R.E.M.'s discography, even if they sound nothing like Murmur or Green or Out Of Time or what have you. The shapeless Reveal and the leaden Around The Sun quickly proved that Up was a fluke, a happy accident, but that one-off nature hasn't prevented it from slowly assimilating more and more of my listening time. Sometimes the really good ones sneak themselves into your ears whether you want them to or not.
By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2005-09-27