From the first eerie beginning of the opening track, “Airportman,” it is obvious that Up is not a commercial record. Some have charged that the band veered off into left field for this album, their first since drummer Bill Berry left a year ago. Utilizing drum machines and loops, Up has been likened to a Stereolab record. A Beck record. A Brian Eno record. But hearing this as anything other than an R.E.M. album is an oversight.
Up shows new experimentation, but no more than what should be expected from a band that has aged like a fine wine over eighteen years. They have experimented on nearly every one of their albums, producing the oddities “Radio Song,” “Star Me Kitten,” and “Leave” on recent efforts alone. Up is no different, with songs such as “Hope” and “Walk Unafraid” standing out for their fast-paced drum-looped sounds. But songs such as “Daysleeper,” “Suspicion,” “Sad Professor,” and “The Apologist” are not just good songs: they are obvious R.E.M. songs.
While Michael Stipe likened Out of Time to a collection of love songs, he truly succeeds with “At My Most Beautiful,” a gorgeously poignant ode to Brian Wilson. Unfortunately, the drippy “doot doot” backing vocals take away from the mood.
There is an added focus on Stipe’s lyrics, even to the point of printing them in the booklet for the first time. As resounding as most of them are on Up, a few lyrical missteps, such as screeching “hey hey” in “Lotus” or using the lines “flim flam” and “phony maroney” on other songs, stand out.
These minor flaws don’t take much away from an album that really only has one forgettable song (“Parakeet”). With Up, R.E.M. has shown that they can not only go on without Berry, but can continue to produce great music as well. Warner Brothers Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019-6908