Rock ballads are the songs you play after the night has burned itself out. Soft music takes you down from the party, filling the dawn’s empty breathing space with forgiving beauty. “As the sun comes up, as the moon goes down, these heavy notions creep around,” sings Michael Stipe in “Walk Unafraid,” one of the fourteen rock ballads (plus a lone rocker, “Lotus”) that comprise Up, R.E.M.‘s first album since the departure of drummer Bill Berry. The whole record is cast in that reverse twilight. It is a look back and a dream forward from the greatest rock-ballad band that ever existed, a group whose fast songs even made you think slow, the one that made introspection not just a sideline but the whole game.
The pulsing drum machine that opens Up hints at what skeptics may have feared: The Berry-less (but not entirely drummerless) R.E.M. may have bought a floor ticket to music’s latest overplayed trend, electronica. But the mellotron, harpsichord and other groovy effects on Up never overwhelm the band’s mighty sense of self. Peter Buck and Mike Mills approach the synthetic-pop landscape just as they did the thief’s playground of rock & roll; they combine mostly vintage influences – here easy listening and 1960s pop – within elegant song structures designed to complement Stipe’s pensive phrasing and the band’s penchant for graceful flourishes. Always more intense when laying back than when rocking out, R.E.M. find their confidence on Up by taking it slow.
Don’t be misled by the reflective mood – Up still brims with the tricky convolutions that have made R.E.M. the obsession of dorm-room interpreters since Stipe slurred his way through Chronic Town in 1982. Fans will get a big shock when they open the booklet and actually see their egghead hero’s full lyrics printed for the first time with an album. But careful reading doesn’t reveal Stipe’s verses to be more direct than usual; he has long included sharp character analyses and urban hymns alongside the stuff that seems like automatic writing. He still dignifies the latter with doozies like “The tectonic dispatcher shifts to smooth the ocean floor” and “I’ll be pounce pony.” Whatever, Michael. The leap that R.E.M. do make has to do with focus. Like 1992’s Automatic for the People, Up seeks a unified mood, but its scope is broader than that collection of elegies. Stipe unites each narrative –from love songs to courtroom confessions to self-declarations and exercises in empathy – by pursuing an overarching theme: the sometimes mystical, sometimes desperate solitude enforced by the crowded anonymity of modern life.
“I read bad poetry into your machine,” Stipe sings in “At My Most Beautiful,” a surprisingly direct love song with a hidden undertow. The machine helps Michael reach his beloved, but it also signifies their separation. Many songs on Up chronicle such moments of isolation-induced intimacy. The Bill Clinton-esque lover who testifies, “I watched you fall/I think I pushed” in “Diminished”; the elegant failure in “Sad Professor”; the nightshift serf in “Daysleeper”; and the salaried suit in “Airport Man” deliver soliloquies or interior monologues, baring their hearts because they suspect no one is listening.
Alienation is a subject Up shares with Radiohead‘s OK Computer. Computer is the Pet Sounds to this Sgt. Pepper – the challenge that stimulates risk. Buck and Mills cultivate the same multitiered spaciousness that makes OK Computer so rich. Trading off instruments, denying the guitar its usual primacy without diminishing its impact, Buck and Mills have orchestrated their rock as never before.
Losing Berry has allowed R.E.M. to literally think outside the rock box; the drum machines, shakers and congas that surface in his place are only the most obvious aspect of the group’s expanded consciousness. Buck and Mills deploy a sympathetic band of notables – drummer Joey Waronker, engineer John Keane, multi-instrumentalists Barrett Martin, Scott McCaughey and Bruce Kaphan, and an understated string section – to create holographic backdrops for Stipe’s words, sounds that float around his vocals and seem to be speaking back to him.
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As the slightly suspect, soft and spacey side of rock, ballads have often been the ground for similar experiments. Up embeds the history of slow rock into its songs without falling into mimicry. The Beach Boys and the Beatles whisper through the album’s collective memory; so do Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach, U2, David Bowie, the Zombies, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave and today’s clique of orch-pop experimenters, especially the Magnetic Fields. “Hope” borrows its melody from Leonard Cohen‘s “Suzanne.” Patti Smith continues to serve as Stipe’s muse, especially on “Parakeet.” “Lotus” claims its slinky groove from glare rock and the Climax Blues Band.
Yet for all the fun the band has with these different voices, the ultimate source and subject of Up are R.E.M. themselves. The music that Up most often recalls is “Nightswimming” and “So. Central Rain,” “Wendell Gee” and “Pilgrimage” – the stuff of countless personal epiphanies as R.E.M. made the romance of the inner world as compelling as all the lust and rebellion that rock had mustered throughout its loud history. Up continues that romance, on a morning after that promises a good day.