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Going There With R.E.M.

[whitespace] R.E.M.
Up With People: R.E.M. returns with 'Up,' a mature collection
of mid-life rock.

Newest album from Michael Stipe and company is through with irony

By Gina Arnold

RECENTLY, I MET a guy at a cocktail party who insisted on telling me all about this great band he'd just seen at the Bridge Benefit at Shoreline. They were called R.E.M., he said enthusiastically. "You should check them out. That Stipe guy could really sing!"

"Do you know them?" he added as an afterthought.

"Now, what could I say to that?" I asked a friend rhetorically, the same friend with whom, in 1983, I went to see R.E.M.'s first concert here--and every subsequent one as well. In those days, "that Stipe guy" had long blond curls and sang with his back to his audience, and we were already his disciples and almost insane with anticipation because of our deep-rooted admiration for the band's first EP, Chronic Town.

"You say, 'Know R.E.M.? I am R.E.M., you fool!' " my friend advised, laughing. And it's true. In the 15-year, 13-album interim, my knowledge and love have, for all intents and purposes, swelled and grown and finally merged with the band's ethos to the point where I am, indeed, R.E.M.

I know why they do what they do and sound how they sound and think what they think. I even feel their pain and confusion at losing drummer Bill Berry (who officially dropped out of the band last year after suffering a life-threatening brain aneurysm that changed his life's priorities).

Are you familiar with the popular slang phrase "I can't go there with you"? When it comes to R.E.M., I not only can go there, I'm there already, on the spot. So when Mr. Stipe said in a recent interview that he was "through with irony," I was right with him--although the truth is, I've never thought the guys in R.E.M. were quite as ironic as they themselves thought they were.

Indeed, if they believe that songs like "Bandwagon," "Man in the Moon" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" are ironic, then they have greatly mistaken their own worth in the world. And "Losing My Religion" may be enigmatic, opaque, sarcastic even, but ironic? Nope.

STILL, SICKNESS with irony is a perfectly explicable reaction to the current ideological climate in America, here at the end of the millennium. R.E.M.'s bitterness, tiredness and ennui with society's cruel dedication to hype rings true with the way most people are feeling, and these are the emotions that R.E.M. exudes on its new album, Up (Warner Bros.).

Or, as Stipe sings on "Walk Unafraid" (the album's spiritual centerpiece): "How can I be what I want to be, when all I want to do is strip away these stilled constraints and crush this masquerade?" And it's true. "How can I be what I want to be" is, after all, the $64,000 question for us all--the one that plagues us in midlife, whether we are rock stars or bums.

Up was recorded in February of this year in San Francisco, with a variety of substitutes for drums: synthesizers, tape loops and the occasional services of Barrett Martin of Screaming Tree. Perhaps because of that piecemeal quality, the album is not as beautiful or poetic as recent LPs like New Adventures in Hi-Fi or Automatic for the People but is instead a 64-minute struggle to find a cohesive sound.

Musically, Up doesn't quite achieve that goal of cohesiveness. Without being atonal, it is a strangely tuneless record, with more ambient, meandering melodies than signature riffs or choruses. The closest things to traditional singles are the songs "The Apologist," whose chorus of "I'm sorry" recalls the 1984 song "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)," and "Daysleeper," a ballad that closely echoes the gorgeous "Nightswimming" (from Automatic) in meter, if not exactly in tone.

This is not to say, however, that either of these songs is derivative or uninspired. Quite the contrary. They merely delve deeper into sentiments that have matured with time. After all, saying "I'm sorry" is different at the age of 36 than it is at 26: it's more serious and generally more heartfelt.

And it's even more serious when you're 50 and you're saying it to a nation. Indeed, although "The Apologist" is not about President Clinton--for one thing, its recording predates the Starr report, and it's not supposed to be ironic, remember?--the song has a certain resonance that simply cannot be avoided in these scandal-damaged times.

"I want to apologize for everything I was," Stipe pleads, hopelessly enough. Now, those words must appear heavily weighted to a world apprised of Monica Lewinsky, and the same goes double for "Diminished," in which a duplicitous persona sings, "Jealous lover, self-defense, protective brother, chemical dependence/I'll consult the I Ching, I'll consult TV/ouija, oblique strategies/I'll consult the law books for precedents/Can I charm the jury?"

The lovely "Daysleeper" is also political in the oblique way that "Flowers of Guatemala," "Cuyahoga" and "Fall on Me" (all from Life's Rich Pageant) were. It's not about a stock crash or anything concrete like that, as much as it is about the foreboding feeling that the global economy, depicted here as blinking lights on a VDT, can evoke in us all: "My nights are colored headache gray." Beautiful.

OBVIOUSLY, THE antidote to irony is sincerity, and it is possible that the bleak and dirgelike tone that infects so much of Up is, indeed, sincere. This certainly isn't a glossy or romantic record. "Lotus" is the only song here that could conceivably be called a rocker, beginning as it does with a series of harsh "Heys!" barked out by Stipe. But as befits a band without a drummer, the song's guitar and organ--and even string--parts are more interesting than its perfunctory midtempo rock framework.

And that division is true of much of the record, which is more about sonic texture than song structure or even narrative. Because the musicians are so clearly just feeling their way about in a new, Berryless world here, Stipe is the focal point of this whole record. It is one long series of lyrics uttered solemnly in his haunting tenor. "Everyone hates a drunk/everyone hates a sad professor," he sings. And "I was hell/sarcastic, silver, swell."

But although Stipe's observational remarks are always fairly intriguing, there are a few too many. For example, "Hope"--a song that is explicitly patterned after Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne"--is dissonant and unedited, a lengthy spoken-word piece about trust, religion, childhood and alligators that verges thematically on an X-Files episode. ("You want to cross your DNA with something reptile," sings a briefly Mulder-like Stipe.)

Another departure for R.E.M. on Up is the presence of several flat-out love songs, notably "At My Most Beautiful," "Suspicion," "You're in the Air" and "Why Not Smile?" In fact, a great deal of the record is expressed in the first person, which is quite a change for Stipe, whose writing is normally so far from personal that his first five albums were considered by many to be full of impenetrably dense muttering.

But the truth is, Stipe's best songs were always the ones on which he was least detached--when he suddenly crowed that he would live a million years, when he declared that was him in the corner, when he sent one to the one he loved. Those were the times he crept into our hearts, not, as one might think, when he told us to stand in the place where we lived or when he avowed that everybody hurts.

Up does not have any of those types of songs, and yet the album is very compelling, brave even, in its admission of spiritual, cultural and personal disillusionment, the malaise of middle age made musical. As always, R.E.M. expresses the emotional Zeitgeist, and it's not their fault that circa now is so uneasy and grim.

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From the November 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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