R.E.M. should, by all rights, blow. Drummer Bill Berry, before he quit the group, was nothing more than adequate. Guitarist Peter Buck knows at most five chords and compensates by sounding “jangly.” Bassist Mike Mills is unremarkable but has a better voice than the band’s singer. Which brings us to Michael Stipe, a lead vocalist with perhaps the worst voice in radio rock—paper thin and whiny like a teen-age girl.
Yet R.E.M. went from party band to national treasure simply by writing fantastic songs. Somehow, the group’s underwhelming elements meshed to make beautiful music. It was a thrilling magic act—for 20 years, the band levitated high above its talent. But R.E.M.’s newest album, Reveal (due in stores May 15), finds them crashing back to mediocrity.
Remember, against the backdrop of ‘80s pop, R.E.M. seemed a godsend. They put out great records on an indie label while eschewing synthesizers and doofus-y outfits. This was the first of the band’s three developmental stages: the “college rock” era. R.E.M. won rave reviews for playing well-wrought, melodic gems that sounded at once retro and modern. Stage One culminated in 1987’s Document, with fab hits like “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
Then R.E.M. signed with Warner Bros., beginning Stage Two: the top-of-the-world years. Starting with Green, the band’s songs began to fit into three categories:
1) The cloying hit single that won’t leave your head even though it’s just fricking god-awful. (“Stand“; “Shiny Happy People”) 2) The gorgeous ballad that makes you wonder how these average dudes craft such elegant songs. (“Man on the Moon”; "Endgame“) 3) What I call the “dirge”: the plodding, midtempo strummer with blah chord changes, banal melodies, and little to no variation in dynamics, lasting forever and going absolutely nowhere. (“Half a World Away”; "Sweetness Follows“)
Stage Two peaks with 1992’s Automatic for the People, often called R.E.M.’s best album. Here we find 1) the cloying single (“Everybody Hurts”—ugh, Stipe keening about mental anguish); 2) the beautiful ballad (“Man on the Moon” and the exquisite "Nightswimming“); 3) the dirge (“Drive”—a hit dirge!); plus some throwbacks to the band’s early style.
Finally, the drummer quits and everything goes to hell (e.g., Peter Buck was arrested for air rage on a flight to London a few weeks ago), marking the beginning of Stage Three: the awkward decline, in which the band is no longer countercultural and no longer making great music. This era began with 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which just plain confused everybody. Then there was 1998’s Up, a record that, despite several very nice moments, found R.E.M. experimenting with drum machines and looser song structures yet ending up with lots of dirges.
And now we’ve reached Reveal, the band’s newest release. It suggests the tank is empty, and the dirge factor here is at an all-time high. There’s one OK ballad, “Summer Turns to High,” a direct homage to the Beach Boys’Pet Sounds. (There was a Pet Sounds homage on Up, too.) This track is pleasant, if fluffy. The first single from Reveal, “Imitation of Life,” halfway hearkens back to early R.E.M., remembering the jangly guitar sound but forgetting to be a good song. Like most of Reveal, it lacks the lovely melodies and catchy choruses that marked R.E.M.’s more fertile periods. A few tunes on this album sound like Air, the influential French band famed for sumptuous, electronic mood music. But it’s too late for R.E.M. to jump on that bandwagon. Mostly, Reveal is just boring. It’s a record that’s inoffensive in the background but bears no fruit on close listening.
R.E.M. will put out a few more albums (at least until their contract is up), all of which will be well-reviewed because that’s just how music works. But the spark of magic is likely gone forever. There’s no shame in that: Reinvention’s hard when you’re pushing 40. (Ask U2.) R.E.M. was a brilliant band for a long, long time. At some point it had to sink back into the mediocrity it always, inexplicably, escaped.