R.E.M. 'Reveal' their best record in nine years

by Hank Leukart | 5/17/01 5:00am

The first compact disc I bought was R.E.M.'s "Out of Time," and I admittedly bought it for the bouncy radio single "Shiny Happy People" that made many "real" R.E.M. fans nauseated. But after listening to the treasure chest of incredible tracks on the album that differentiated themselves from mainstream fare, including "Low," "Near Wild Heaven," and "Belong," R.E.M. managed to change my taste in music forever.

The next year, I received the band's critically-lauded "Automatic for the People" on cassette as a gift and fell in love with it -- somewhat against my will, because I was forced to listen to it everyday for the entire summer on the way to work because the CD-player in my car broke. Songs like "Man on the Moon," "Nightswimming," and "Everybody Hurts" were indelibly etched on my brain forever.

But I'm not obsessed with the band. After all, I neglected to buy "Monster" until my freshman year in college, and there are a number of albums I don't own. I'm not an R.E.M. zealot who kisses Michael Stipe's shoes every time the band releases a new album, nor am I the type who began despising the band after they released "Monster." I don't care about their politics, nor do their politics bother me. When Stipe finally publicly came out of the closet two days ago, it had no effect on me. I have no vested interest in their success or failure.

But that's why I'm the guy to review their new album, "Reveal." It's a perfect album for any type of R.E.M. fan or R.E.M. cynic, because it brings R.E.M. back to its roots a bit while still managing to sound progressive; the sound is tight and soothing (for "Monster" haters), and it avoids politics.

But best of all, "Reveal" is R.E.M.'s best work since "Automatic for the People." With drummer Bill Berry's continued absence, R.E.M. has made a significant step forward, with a sound less tentative than the one they exhibited on their surprisingly good previous album "Up." This time around, the band sounds more like they know what to do without Berry, increasing their use of piano, digital loops and light percussion to fill in their songs' backgrounds.

As usual, Stipe's voice haunts and comforts simultaneously, as the band's notoriously confusing lyrics pour from his lips. But on "Reveal," Stipe seems to be feeling a bit more sentimental and coherent.

Sadness and regret emanates in the superb ballad "I'll Take the Rain," when he sings, "I knew you when/I loved you then You laid me bare/and marked me there/the promises we made I'd hoped you'd fold/and open up inside, inside of me." Stipe misses a lover here, but listeners have little idea who it might be.

The same longing exists in one of the album's best tracks, "I've Been High": "Do my eyes seem empty?/I've forgotten how this feels/I've been high/I've climbed so high/but life sometimes/it washes over me." The track's atmospheric sound is lonely and depressing as Stipe's falsetto and a strange background synth adds a unique flair.

Hands down, the best track on the album is "All The Way to Reno," a jaw-dropping single that will have listeners "humming/all the way to Reno." The electronic chiming that follows the, "You were so sugar sweet" is so catchy that it's hard not to be in love with this song after the first listen. The twanging guitar causes goose bumps, and the song's oft-repeated chorus, "You know what you are/You're gonna be a star" was probably easy for Stipe to write but it's hard for fans to forget.

Two tracks later, "Saturn Returns" manages to make "I've Been High" and "All the Way to Reno" seem like parts of a larger body of genius than isolated incidents of song-writing success. Again, Stipe yearns for something he lacks in the melancholy tune: "Easy to poke yourself square in the eye/Harder to like yourself/Harder to try." The piano and digital sound effects give the song a textured sound, and when the synth hits a bottom note and simply holds it, the band takes quite an interesting mid-song risk. And it works.

The synthesizer returns two tracks later in "Imitation of Life" and complements with strong percussion and another catchy refrain. All of the unique sounds on the album give it a refined, progressive-rock sound that thankfully sounds nothing like Radiohead or a Radiohead copycat band.

Another great tune, "Chorus and the Ring," pops up two tracks after "Imitation of Life," which precedes the grand finale of "I'll Take the Rain" and "Beachball." Another of the album's best, Stipe has fun with "Beachball" and bids listeners goodbye: "Tonight's alive/the beachball's set to fly This life is sweet/We're dancing in the street."

Undoubtedly, the band must have spent a huge amount of time in the studio to build a near-perfect album that has such an effortless sound. What a disappointment it is that the band won't be touring in support of "Reveal," because hearing this album live would be quite an experience.

During my junior year, I caught R.E.M. at New York's Jones Beach Amphitheater after the release of "Up," and it was a concert-event I will never forget. But I'd probably trade it and my first-born for a live show that includes tracks from "Reveal." Maybe I am becoming an R.E.M. zealot after all.

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