They’re a funny band, R.E.M. On the release of Automatic For The People in 1992, they became probably the biggest band in the world. However, they’ve somehow managed to retain their credibility and respect of their peers. However, sales have been falling since Automatic, and their latest opus is being heavily marketed as a return to form.
Certainly, this will delight the fans who were left cold by the under-rated New Adventures In Hi-Fi or bemused by the experimental meanderings of “Up”. What we have here is a ‘back to basics’ package which proved so successful for U2 last year. Michael Stipe has returned to writing slightly mournful, folky songs with soaring choruses, framed by Peter Buck’s jangly guitar, and the band sound so much better for it.
Opening track The Lifting gives some idea of what to expect. A steady build up of keyboards, and then Stipe’s vocals come to the surface. As ever, it’s difficult to work out exactly what he’s on about, his lyrics being as deliberately obtuse as they always have been. Only in I’ve Been High does the emotional guard drop, hinting that all has not been well in the R.E.M. camp of late (“Life sometimes, it washes over me…I’ve forgotten how this feels”). Although Stipe’s lyrics could be described as pretentious, he usually has a knack of coming up with a couple of memorable lines each album, and Reveal is no expectation – “You want the greatest thing/the greatest thing since bread came sliced” from Imitation Of Life for example.
At first listen, this may rather seem like R.E.M. by numbers, and if you’ve never been a fan of Stipe and co, then you may consider it all a bit dull. However, after several listens, the songs worm their way into the brain, and tracks such as All The Way To Reno stay in the mind for days afterwards. Reveal also marks a return to the heart-rendering ballad, which proved so successful in Automatic. Saturn Return will appeal to anyone who played Nightswimming constantly back in 1992, while I’ll Take The Rain takes U2 on at their own game by being the big stadium ballad. Elsewhere, Summer Turns To High takes the Beach Boys style that made At My Most Beautiful such a standout of Up.
So, the “greatest thing since bread came sliced”? Well it’s certainly the best R.E.M. record in nearly a decade, and while it doesn’t quite make instant classic status as Automatic… did, it will certainly please fans who have been eager for a return to form like this for some time.