R.E.M. - Up
One of the benefits of publishing a rock and roll magazine on a quarterly basis is it affords the opportunity to reflect upon a piece of music for a much longer span of time before writing about it than publications with stricter deadlines can allow. It is a common experience among music fans that the first time a song or album is heard, it will be understood, digested, and interpreted differently than it will be on subsequent listenings. As this applies to a critic’s work, the need for timely, newsworthy information on the pages of one’s magazine, newspaper, or website often forces judgments to be based on an insufficient number of listenings to a particular work. The reader loses in the end—titillated by fresh descriptions of a favorite band’s new work, the depth of perception is all but guaranteed to suffer from the reviewer’s lack of time-based perspective. The result is the biggest turn-off of all: premature evaluation.
Though Automatic For The People was heralded with a five-star review in Rolling Stone upon release in 1992, it took many listeners some time to warm its haunting cadences. Monster sounded so raw and cool the first few times around the CD player in 1994, but quickly began to bore and hasn’t shaken off the dust since. Conversely, New Adventures In Hi-Fi seemed like a bit of a snooze when it came out in 1996, yet suddenly seemed wonderfully exciting and fresh when given another chance in 1998. Thus Up, the latest album from a band whose fans tend to be fickle these days in their opinions of their once-indie heroes, is perhaps an ideal record to review after months of digestive listening have taken place.
After the always palpable thrill of hearing Michael Stipe sing new words for the first time has worn off some, with the album selling well below industry expectations and no tour to raise the band’s profile in sight, so far Up has stood the test of time. Oh, the one in-your-face rock track, "Lotus," has a "Bang And Blame"-esque potential to grate if heard too many times. Yes, Bill Berry and his drum kit are missed. And "Airportman" is so unobtrusive an opening track it’s easy to miss the fact that the album has begun.
Let it be known, though, that the many longtime R.E.M. fans who have not bought this album—the same fans who previously had been willing to purchase Michael Stipe’s shit on a stick—are missing out on a lushly orchestrated, atmospheric record with appropriate nods to The Beach Boys ("At My Most Beautiful") and Leonard Cohen ("Hope"). Yes, yes, at a distance of some months, the single "Daysleeper" stands up just fine, ballads like "Why Not Smile" and "Falls To Climb" blossom, and the rather baroque "Parakeet" is revealed as nothing short of astonishing. The passage of time proves that R.E.M. has made yet another elegant masterpiece. Still graceful after all these years.
YEAH YEAH YEAH, 1999