It's hard to imagine one wishing for the breakup of a favorite band, but after repeated listenings -- that's part of the bargain with R.E.M., isn't it? -- to 1998's Up, you can't escape the obvious conclusion: The effort sounds as patchy as on first hearing. After the departure of drummer Bill Berry the previous year, Michael Stipe had humbly commented that he supposed that "a three-legged dog was still a dog." After Up, it seemed kinder to put that dog down.
Three years later much, if not all, has changed. The revelation on the new album is that there's plenty of life in the old band yet.
In particular, Reveal is Stipe's renaissance. On recent albums, his voice -- the earthy instrument that made R.E.M.'s early work inimitable -- had sounded increasingly desiccated. Now the color, the warmth and the nuance are back. Those three months that Stipe spent in virtual creative solitude in Dublin last summer have paid off handsomely. From the atmospheric opener, "The Lifting," to the laid-back fluency of the concluding "Beachball," there's hardly a melody that isn't sinuous and seductive.
Some of the mainstream press has been in a tizzy about the "revelation" buried within Stipe's lyrics, but all this hype misses the point, or rather two points: First, the main action is Stipe's wonderful line-readings of his own lyrics -- a phrase as banal as "vanishing point" becomes poignant and, yes, revelatory in the middle of a moody slice of psychic life such as "Disappear." Second, faced with lines as amusingly impenetrable as "that's when the calibration brittle as a stick / gets you the gold ring / and the tar museum Che Guevara wink" ("Chorus and the Ring"), the lyrics sheet ain't much of an ally.
Elsewhere, Stipe ranges from the bravely vulnerable torch song "I'll Take the Rain" ("You laid me bare / and marked me there" to the dreamily evocative "Summer Turns to High," another of Stipe's haunting revisitations of childhood ("With my bedsheet cape and sandals / circle citronella candles"). Reveal suffers a few mid-album doldrums, but there's not a track that doesn't cause a few lyrical or musical shivers.
Peter Buck and Mike Mills do a fine job of ensuring that the electronica and atmospherics serve the song, although their presence is too subdued, especially Mills's. Lacking are his trademark counterpoint vocals (when they're there, they're buried too far down in the mix); lacking also is his occasional spotlight lead vocal, which put Stipe's eccentricities into even sharper relief. And while there's probably as much chance of R.E.M. becoming a quartet again as Michael Stipe growing back his hair, one would like to hear a recording of R.E.M. as a band, not just a recording by the band R.E.M.
But in the meantime, Reveal's a keeper.
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