It's not like you won't be able to recognize that Up (Oct. 27) is a new R.E.M. album. Singer Michael Stipe's one-of-a-kind vocals swoon and flutter as in the past, and guitarist Peter Buck still delivers a few of his signature solos.
But the three members of the Athens, Ga.-bred folk-rock band will tell you they've taken a few bold steps on their 11th full-length work, including, for the most part, the absence of Buck's trademark guitar sounds, the introduction of a drum machine to fill the empty space left by former drummer Bill Berry and the inclusion of a lyric sheet with the album.
"We really didn't want to make a record that sounded like anything we'd done before," bassist Mike Mills said of the 14-song project, the art-pop group's first collection of recordings since the unexpected departure of Berry, who quit the band last fall to get away from music.
Mills said he believes the trio was enormously successful at the task, going so far as to suggest that, if you strip Stipe's vocals away, "I don't think you can tell that it's R.E.M., except for maybe a couple of songs."
After perusing tunes such as "Hope," with its throbbing, Miami-style bass and drum beat, or "Lotus," in which Stipe's vocals are tweaked almost beyond recognition over a chorus of psychedelic keyboards and fuzzed out guitars, one might be willing to agree.
Berry's departure gave the band the perfect chance to take risks it might not have taken otherwise, Stipe said. It offered them the opportunity to reinvent the band's sound, he added, noting as well that it was also the most challenging record the group has made in its 17-year career.
"There was no point in making another jangly R.E.M. record," Buck added. "This was our chance to really take some chances, although we've taken plenty of chances in the past."
The album kicks off with a subdued ballad, "Airport Man," which introduces the newest member of the group: its nearly omnipresent drum machine.
With a classic, "tick-tocky" mechanical drum that sounds as if it were nicked from electro-pioneers Kraftwerk, "Airport Man" is marked by a fat bassline and a claustrophobic, paranoid vibe heightened by Stipe's classically oblique, whispered lyrics. It has the icy feel of neon gas trapped in a murky tube.
For longtime fans of the traditionally organic rock band, however, that low-key introduction is hardly sufficient preparation for "Lotus," one of the most experimental songs on the album and in the band's career.
With Stipe's vocals treated to sound like a screechy phantom, the trippy "Lotus" is overloaded with floating sounds. A majestic, soaring guitar-line from Buck vies for space with dreamy keyboards, a string section, a church-style organ and Stipe's double-tracked vocals.
Following two rocking albums in which Buck's guitar was brought to the fore, Up is nearly devoid of guitar. Instead, there are layers of keyboards, synthesizer, piano and various ambient sounds more commonly found on records by such artists as electronic-music maven Brian Eno.
"It was the hardest record we've ever made," Stipe said, adding that the bandmembers felt they'd reached their zenith with 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi album.
"When we came together in March of '97 in Hawaii, we were all pretty much thinking along the same lines in terms of how far we wanted to try to push this one away from stuff that we had done before and the different ways to do that," Stipe said. "I don't think we had any idea that it would become really as much of an experiment as it became."
While "Hope" and the chilly ballad "Suspicion" push the envelope, the group offers a few songs that tap into its musical strengths but still go off on stylistic tangents. The joyous "At My Most Beautiful" -- an homage to the studio expertise of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and the first love song Stipe said he's ever written -- is classic R.E.M. shimmer with a coloring of tubas and sleigh bells.
Stipe's lyrics on "Beautiful" include the saccharine-sweet verse, "I read bad poetry into your machine/ I save your messages/ Just to hear your voice/ You always say your name/ Like I wouldn't know it's you."
Meanwhile, the jangly first single, "Daysleeper" (RealAudio excerpt), the half-acoustic/half-electric "Sad Professor" and the fragile "I'm Not Over You" are more reminiscent of the group's acoustic-folk roots.
Notably, Up is the first R.E.M. album to feature a lyric sheet. One of the most lyrically powerful songs on the opus is the mid-tempo "Walk Unafraid." Built around a ragged drum loop, a string section and a spare, bouncy bassline, the song is perhaps Stipe's most self-assured and bold statement on individuality to date.
"Everyone walks the same/ Expecting me to step/ The narrow path they've laid," Stipe sings, deciding "they claim to walk unafraid/ I'll be clumsy instead/ Hold my love me or leave me/ High."
Stipe said the song was inspired by punk-poet, rocker and friend Patti Smith. "Patti gave me kind-of a talking to at the beginning of this record," Stipe said, "and told me that I needed to be fearless. I took her words and turned it into a song." The result is something that Stipe said he hoped was as universal as such R.E.M. hits as "Losing My Religion" and "Everybody Hurts."
Like "Walk Unafraid," several other Up tracks are packed almost to overflowing with a busy, lush array of strings, drum-machine beats, bells and fluttering keyboard sounds. Among them are the dramatic "You're In The Air," the spooky "Diminished" and "Parakeet," a dark song that sounds inspired by such pioneering '70s German ambient bands as Can and Neu!
Also included on the album is the wall-of-sound tune "Why Not Smile," the dynamic, pseudo-churchy "Falls To Climb," "I'm Not Over You" and the blown-out drum sounds and watery vocals of "The Apologist."
Each song finds R.E.M. venturing into unexplored places and finding something that is both familiar and new.
"If you were to take [Stipe's] vocal off and listen to [most] tracks," Mills said, "you would never know that it was us."
All R.E.M. quotes are from an interview conducted by SonicNet Editorial Director Michael Goldberg on Sept. 30, 1998.