Much has been made about this being REM’s album of quiet love songs, but much of the album is about unresolved tension, from the disconnected opportunism of “Airport Man” to the underlying trepidation of “Hope.” These are songs about failure, guilt and contrition. They may be quiet, but underneath uneasiness screams.
Up is the culmination of the most tumultuous period of REM’s career, which began with the accident-plagued Monster tour and ended with drummer Bill Berry’s departure from the band. Coming after disappointing sales of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Up is another difficult album. There are no hit singles (though “Lotus” and “Daysleeper” will get some airplay), and the album boasts such a bizarre cohesion that it will be difficult for fans to decide if they like it or not (myself included).
Not an album to listen to while vacuuming the floor, Up is best appreciated in a bean bag chair with a phat set of headphones. Then the true beauty of the recording seeps through. Bells and feedback generators, off-key piano tunings, Moog synthesizers, and funky hidden bass lines all find their way into your hidden consciousness. Michael offers nothing new in his singing, so you concentrate on the music. Under even the simplest tunes there is a constant hum, an unpleasant churning similar to that of Elvis Costello’s classic Blood and Chocolate
REM gets credit for constantly evolving, constantly trying to change, but lately it’s like they’re coloring the same spot in the same coloring book over and over. Getting better and better, trying different shades and mixing different colors, but doing nothing radically different. It would be great to see REM try something really crazy and attempt different genres of music. The Beatles did it on the White Album, and since then every band has been afraid to try. Why not REM? If any band could do it, they could. What would REM sound like doing country? What about the blues? What about a scorching, metallic rocker? Ragtime? Chamber music? What would REM sound like if they truly “gave up the funk”?
I think they have it in them. Next time, let’s see if they try.