When REM announced their split this week after a near thirty-year career and 15 studio albums, the world eulogised the fantastic contribution made by the band from Athens, Georgia. There is a case, that late day REM marks a rapid decline from the early days (I feel that bowing out after 2001’s Reveal would have been a gracious parting gift), yet they continued to work hard to produce a further three albums, making their work span over four decades. Perhaps the ‘decline’ of REM can only be measured against the very high standard Michael Stipe and the gang set early on in their career. Songs from It’s the End of the World As We Know It, to Imitation of Life, REM have a rousing back catalogue of songs, which everyone can enjoy, and which many musicians see as inspiration. Rather than trawling through this impressive catalogue and explaining (as the world seems to be doing right now) the ins and outs of REM’s work, I will heap praise on my favourite REM album. My own homage to the band’s very fine innings is the 1998 album, Up.
Having begun an experimental phase with the often-criticised New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the album that followed, Up, was even further removed from the early days; such commercially successful albums such as 1992’s Automatic for the People. With the departure of drummer Bill Berry, the band appeared set for new directions. At the times of Up’s release, fans may have been startled by the quite deliberate replacement of Peter Buck’s guitar with catchy keyboard riffs, distorted electronica and sythned bleeps and creeps. Recall the beautiful Parakeet (delicate keyboards, matched only by Stipe’s contemplative dream-like philosophy about the demise of birds at the hand of greedy cats); the comparatively simple yet average Why Not Smile? or closer Falls to Climb (the latter with possible references to the band’s new direction, not to mention the title of the album itself). The album is daring for a band who appeared at this time to have the formula nailed for alternative rock music. Yet people forget this album produced Daysleeper, which many regard as one of the best REM songs of all time. It is undoubtedly a great song; beautiful, innocent and emotional, but with a bit of patience and perseverance, it is easy to understand the brilliance of the rest of the album.
Airportman opens the album, which risks sending you to sleep as Stipe murmurs: ‘He moves efficiently/Beyond security/Great opportunity…awaits’ but it is this obscure electronica number with soothing dreamy chimes that defines the album’s experimentation. Before comatose sets in, we are hit with an almighty ‘HEY HEY’ as Stipe and the crew kick start the album with Lotus, one of my favourites. A quite surreal song with Stipe proclaiming that he ate a lotus with robotic style vocals, accompanied with a minimal four note keyboard sequence and distorted guitar, this quite brilliant song is hard to forget.
The songs appear to convey feelings and emotions, beyond what is expressed in the titles. Suspicion reverts back to a dream-like state. Slow-paced lyrics from Stipe with more use of the keyboard and guitars that flicker in and out of earshot. But suspicion at this moment seems tranquil and logical, while hope (in Hope) appears irritated and frustrated in this abstract and complex number, driven by electronica effects and rhythms, discussing reptile DNA. Diminished is simultaneously paranoid and enchanting. Yet, despite these contradictions, Walk Unafraid is powerful, defiant and a quite breathtaking track; angry and determined on this otherwise placid album in which you punch the air as you walk down the road earplugs in. Additionally, one believes Stipe has genuinely learned his lesson at the end of the repenting The Apologist. Sad Professor is a timeless REM song about a washed up alcoholic academic (a winning combination for any prose or poetry). It could squeeze its way on to any album from Green to Around The Sun. It is profound, its full of sadness and regret, and contains a charming address to the listeners, which sucks you in to Stipe’s words and it’s beautiful accompaniment including a very deserted guitar from Mike Mills: ‘If we’re talking about love/Then I have to tell you/Dear readers I’m not sure where I’m headed’. You’re In The Air is by far the most anonymous song on the album, yet contains a delicious mandolin hook à la Losing My Religion, giving its only saving grace.
There is still one song, a song, which remains to this day, a silent classic. Inflected with Beach Boys harmonies, sequences and choruses (God Only Knows springs to mind), At My Most Beautiful is a straightforward love ballad. No hidden meaning, or convoluted complex metaphors or abstract poetry, this is REM and particularly Michael Stipe at their most unusually stripped bare. Full of silly, gooey, passionate declarations of love, this is quite simply one of the most wonderful love songs ever written. There I said it. ‘I read bad poetry/Into your machine/I save your messages/Just to hear your voice’ would make anyone smile. I defy you not to enjoy this song. Unless your partner just left you…then don’t listen to this. Listen to Blood On the Tracks (see Bob and I below) instead. The slow march like drums are potently contrasted to the delicacy of Stipe’s voice, the soft cello sequence and the enchanting ‘do do do’s’ presumably from Buck and Mills.
It’s clear to see why REM fans of the time, would reject this experimental album, as long (over an hour long) pretentious (over-use of previous unheard of effects and sounds) and simply not what they originally loved which was jangle rock pop. Yet Up is an absorbing album. While the length risks disengagement from the individual quality of songs, the sleepy numbers are placed next to more uplifting fast-tempo songs to keep one on their toes. The experimentation of this album is a true testament to the band’s creativity, and the complexity of emotions running through the album makes this one of Stipe’s more profound and personal contributions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is clear that this is not an album, which you would refer to when talking about REM. Lost in the late 90s final hurrah, Up for me, is a hidden classic, not just from the band, but also for the music world.