Saturday, September 1, 2012

Indistinct R.E.M. Should Go Up, But Instead It Crashes... Hard.

The Good: Some decent lyrics, One or two musical moments
The Bad: Poor vocals, Nothing truly new, Flow from track to track is narcoleptic, Uninspired
The Basics: Up disappoints R.E.M. listeners who knows that the band can say something; on this they don't seem to try or know what to say.

For those who do not read many of my reviews, I have been on an R.E.M. kick lately and I am almost to the end of the collection I have gotten in to review. R.E.M. is a band that I have listened to on the radio and enjoyed when I've heard them. As well, I own their "Best Of" albums and a couple of their albums from the mid-1990s. The albums I have been reviewing the last few days by the group have the added benefit of having been listened to more than my average eight times before I write the review, as I drove from Upstate New York down to Florida last weekend and listened to albums there and back again to truly get a feel for them.

On the other end, I often find myself reviewing works that come from some artists who have done amazing things in the past that I deem "Indistinct." Bruce Springsteen, Seal, Bonnie Raitt, and several others have suffered reviews where the best word to describe their albums is "Indistinct." With Up, R.E.M. joins the ranks of artists with albums that leave almost no impression and disappoint the listener.

With fourteen tracks clocking in at 64:34, Up represents the second coming of R.E.M., following the departure of Berry. The remaining trio tries to keep it together and the listener attempts to have patience as R.E.M.'s Buck, Mills and Stipe get it together. On Up, they write all of the songs, save "Hope," which takes on an additional writer as well. The trio does all of the primary vocals and the main instrumentals as well as sharing a co-production credit. As well, Peter Buck is credited with engineering some of the album. In other words, good or bad, Up is the musical vision of the new R.E.M.

And yes, it is mostly bad.

It is bad when it is memorable or rises to a level of distinction worth noting the music on the disc.

Lyrically, R.E.M. tries to take some risks on Up and they deserve some credit for that. After all, how many pop-rock artists who have done so many amazing things as R.E.M. try to sing a song about medical malpractice and medical experimentation? Yet, on "Hope," they do just that. With lines like, "You want to trust the doctors / Their procedure is the best / But the last try was a failure / And the intern was a mess / And they did the same to Matthew / And he bled 'til Sunday night / They're saying don't be frightened / But you're weakened by the sight of it . . ." ("Hope"). R.E.M. deserves some credit for that. They do try something new.

Similarly, they do an amazing job with Up's "Nightswimming"-like ballad, "At My Most Beautiful." This is simply a love poem put to music and it is poetic and subtly beautiful. It is the superlative track on the album from the writing, the simple piano instrumental and the beauty of the lines, "At my most beautiful / I count your eyelashes, secretly. / With every one, whisper I love you. / I let you sleep. I know you're closed eye watching me, listening / I thought I saw a smile" ("At My Most Beautiful"). Sure, it is a simple and obvious love song, but it works. It does what it is supposed to and something R.E.M. avoided doing for years with all of their early political songs: it says something universally human and it says it clearly and directly. It illustrates that the band can be concerned with something as simple and pure as love.

Sadly, the only other track that is even memorable by the lyrics on Up is "Daysleeper," an ode to the night shift workers of the world. With quirky lines like, "I see today with a newsprint fray / My night is colored headache grey / Daysleeper / The bull and the bear are marking / Their territories / They're leading the blind with / Their international glories" ("Daysleeper") the band creates the hazy world of being a night worker. They capture the ambivalence of what the daywalkers go through quite well and they do it with a sense of style that is compelling.

Beyond that, Up is lyrically boring. There is a lot of repetition, like "I'm so sorry" in "The Apologist" and "sing along" in "Diminished." "Falls To Climb" has an honorable message about ending conflicts, but the predictable rhyme scheme throughout the song guts its punch. Instead, the singsong lyrics make it seem more silly and idealistic than powerful and punchy.

Vocally, Up is certainly not helped by the monolithic melancholy of Michael Stipe's singing. Stipe's vocals blend from one track to another creating an auditory mash that is almost impossible to listen to. There might be crescendos in the instrumentals, but Stipe's singing is bland and forthright, presenting the lyrics with minimal musical emotion, condemning the listener to one of the most boring vocal presentations ever put to a pop-rock album.

More than that, on some tracks, Stipe does not even try. He mumbles through "Why Not Smile" in virtually the same way he slouches through the presentation of "Sad Professor." And "Hope" is atonal, with Stipe speaking almost as much as he is singing the lyrics. That might be fine if it were not surrounded by songs where he is vocally dull.

But perhaps more than anything, it is the instumentals that crush Up. R.E.M. sounds diminished on this album; it sounds like the band is missing a percussion section (which, to be fair, they had lost when Berry departed). But all of the songs are generally slow and melancholy and musically dull, like the narcoleptic equivalent of "Intro To Pop Music." Actually, "Daysleeper" might be the ultimate metaphor for Up; it sounds like this album was churned out in the middle of the night by people who had not done much in the way of sleeping.

As a result, Up is almost universally slow and dominated by lighter guitars, organs and more subtle production elements. The thing is, this could work for an album (R.E.M. did it with Automatic For The People), but Up fails because the lessened instrumentals are not backed up with substantial vocals or lyrics. Instead, the album can be played over and over and over again time and again with little sense as to where it starts and stops, where one iteration begins and the next ends.

Yes, Up is auditory mash; porridge for the ears and R.E.M. could have done much, much better. Fortunately, all of the best tracks on Up are available on the compilation albums, making it easy to avoid picking this mess up.

The best song is "At My Most Beautiful," the lowest point might well be the utterly unmemorable "Suspicion."

For other R.E.M. albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Life’s Rich Pageant
Out Of Time
Automatic For The People
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 – 2000 (Deluxe)


Check out how this album stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page for a listing from Best to Worst!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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