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Yet Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry were not so revolutionary as rock-crit history would portray them; they didn't change the world, not even when they went platinum with 1987's Document. Their earliest releases were Southern rock of a melancholy variety, the Byrds as played by young men raised on punk rock's promise. Chronic Town, Murmur and the masterful Reckoning were beautiful, lush but never opulent, beckoning even as Stipe mumbled his tenebrous poetry beneath Buck's learn-as-you-go guitar playing. R.E.M. turned pedestrian rock and roll into the stuff of art. Never before had anything so pretentious sounded so fragile, roughhewn. Their rock and roll was almost like folk music. It belonged on a front porch. Too bad it didn't stay there.

As soon as R.E.M. hit the arenas a decade ago, in support of Green, they felt the need to turn it up in order to make themselves heard in the back row. There were a few steps back toward home along the way (1992's Automatic for the People remains this decade's masterpiece, offering proof you can whisper and rock all at once). But 1994's Monster and 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi proved they had lingered too long in the sheds. The group's music, once so delicate and so approachable, began to crumble beneath all those Buck guitar solos and Stipe poses. Suddenly, it all felt like noise and affectation. They had become an R.E.M. tribute band.

So perhaps the abrupt departure of drummer Bill Berry last year is indeed the best thing that could have happened to R.E.M. Instead of just making one more al-bum to fulfill its $80-million deal with Warner Bros., R.E.M. was forced to reconsider its position, to face its future -- or its demise. And so Up, its 11th full-length release, becomes a true new adventure in hi-fi for a band of veterans. It's where they pick up and move on, where they pare down the sound so that it once again feels like something cut in the bedroom. As such, it's the most intimate outing by a superstar act since Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.

On Up, Berry has been replaced, in only the most rudimentary sense of the word, by Buck's Tuatara band mate Barrett Martin and Beck's drummer Joey Waronker; also fleshing things out are ex-Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey and veteran indie-rock producer John Keane. But the sound they make is not a completely unfamiliar one. The songs are simply expanded and contracted in the right parts, keyboards murmur in the background until they sound like a heartbeat; imagine "Man in the Moon" merged with "Country Feedback" and the ground in between. It's the sound made when Southerners discover the world is theirs. When Stipe beckons you to "sing along" on "Diminished," finally he sounds like a man wanting you to join in.

Sometimes Up rocks: "Sad Professor" resembles a Who song, down to its fall-down-drunk imagery and windmill guitar chimes. Sometimes it literally howls: "Hope" mutates into an overwhelming drone at its climax, unleashing unsettling white noise until it's almost unbearable. Imagine standing behind an airplane when it takes off. It's a perfect song for Stipe's more-audible-than-normal lyrics (included in a lyric sheet for the first time): "I'm lost in the confusion," he sings, his timbre flat yet gorgeous. "And it doesn't seem to matter."

There is no way R.E.M. could have toured in support of Up. To perform material this intimate in an arena would be like dropping a pebble into the Grand Canyon. Even the disc's more uplifting moments are sad, quiet, unabashed: When Stipe sings, "I remember standing alone trying to forget you," on "You in the Air," one can almost hear his heart break. "At My Most Beautiful" perhaps offers Up's most revealing moment. It sounds as though it was lifted straight from Pet Sounds, right down to the pretty, doo-doo-doo-waaah harmonies, and the piano, timpani, bass and harmonica intro. "I found a way to make you smile," Stipe sings, as if through a smile. "At my most beautiful I'll count your eyelashes / Secretly."

It will likely be written that Up is R.E.M.'s most accessible effort to date. It has space enough to let anyone in, even if it's not so shiny and happy as some of its more recent forerunners. Those so inclined can dissect Stipe's lyrics and ponder his dissatisfaction with religion, his belief that spirituality is in here and not out there. The man almost begs such analysis now, putting his words out front for the first time -- no more burying his head in the sand. Never has R.E.M. made an album that begs to be listened to over and over. It's a reassuring release, proof that every now and then, a band doesn't grow old. It just grows up.

-- Robert Wilonsky

PJ Harvey
Is This Desire?
Island

Two-time Grammy nominee Polly Harvey is among a handful of artists who are consistently able to reinvent and redefine their sound without losing sight of themselves. A proverbial bluesman (sic) trapped in a female art-rocker's body, Harvey has been a groovy riot girl, a Steve Albini-produced post-grunge anomaly, a low-fi home fiddler and a gender-bending chanteuse. On Desire, her sixth release, Harvey plays the part of a dark, meditative songwriter who seems to have just now realized that she has more than one chance to tell her story. The result is a less hurried and more pensive approach than on past albums, a groovy, backwoods swamp opera that showcases Harvey's continued artistic growth.

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