In light of the powerful, rich album R.E.M. have created without drummer
Bill Berry, talking about his departure from the band last year seems
almost insignificant. But it's not. Berry, who had played with the Athens,
Ga., band since its 1980 inception, wasn't just a tom-pounder: He was a
co-conspirator, a friend, a partner, a brother. With Up, remaining
members Michael Stipe (vocals), Peter Buck (guitar) and Mike Mills
(bass/keyboards) prove that they can make compelling, confident music even
without Berry by their side and suggest that the bonds among the three men
are as strong as ever.
Despite the fact that R.E.M. brought in several folks (Beck drummer Joey
Waronker, Screaming Trees' Barrett Martin) to lend a hand with percussion
on the album, the first thing you notice on listening is Berry's absence.
"Airport Man," the album's opener, begins with a rudimentary, Casio-type
drum beat, a sound that hints at a band just starting out (or, in this
But rather than try to compensate for the drummer's absence, R.E.M. have
smartly accepted it as a challenge, experimenting with sometimes sparse,
sometimes multi-textured rhythms. Throughout rock history, drumming has
served as a propulsive force, grounding songs and moving them forward in a
linear fashion. On Up, R.E.M. take advantage of their Berry-less
lineup by crafting work that is appropriately atmospheric.
Many of the 14
songs here don't move forward so much as they move, well, up, and out. That
dynamic is ideal for the lyrics, which time and again come back to images
of nighttime ("You're In The Air," "Lotus"), dreams ("Suspicion," "Hope")
and sleep ("Sad Professor" and the first single, "Daysleeper"). Although few tracks venture above a mid-tempo
pace, Buck often laces the songs with intriguing, gritty guitar effects that offer a more creatively aggressive
sound than tracks from R.E.M.'s 1994 "Rock" album, Monster. Elsewhere, the group brings in washes of strings or
choral voices to lend a sense of warmth.
Questions of religion and spirituality permeate the album. In the cryptic
"The Apologist," the speaker, perhaps talking from the grave, begs pardon
existentially, "for who I was." Religious imagery -- New Testament author
Matthew, lambs, devils and stone-casters -- are dispersed throughout the
album. "Lotus," meanwhile, wrestles with evolution and redemption. Lines
such as "Wash away my ugly sins ... The monkey died for my grin" seem to
mock traditional Christian deliverance, but the refrain, "Bring my happy
[i.e. happiness] back again," implies that science doesn't offer complete
fulfillment. Stipe's full of free-associative restlessness, a feeling that's
underscored by the song's rising and unresolved musical tension.
While the protagonists on Up seem to be a bit uncomfortable with the
religious symbolism in their songs, the continual quest for spirituality is
seen as a positive force. When that spirituality is acted upon, it
invariably focuses on compassion. "Daysleeper" isn't a "labor song" per
se, but it looks at the night watchman with touching empathy. In another
singer's hands, a chorus like "Why Not Smile"'s "You've been sad for a
while/ Why not smile?" would play with utter triteness, but Stipe pulls it
off with the same sincerity that colored "Everybody Hurts," from 1992's
Automatic for the People. Far from being vain, "At My Most
Beautiful" is a delicate song of reassurance, in which the singer finds
that our capacity to help and love others is where true human beauty lies.
Although songs such as "Hope" and "You're In The Air" are centered on
confusion, you leave Up with, more than anything, a sense of
confidence, optimism and opportunity. Like "Lotus," "Hope" teeters between
science and salvation. But it's precisely in an admission of uncertainty
that the song finds its strength. "You're looking for deliverance/ You're
looking like an idiot/ but you no longer care/ 'Cause you want to climb the
ladder/ and you want to see forever," Stipe sings.
That assured sense of self even in the face of confusion comes more clearly
into focus on Up's shining centerpiece, "Walk Unafraid." As
wavering guitar effects suggest the shakiness of contradiction, the speaker
tells a vague tale of "courageous stumbling" against the flow of society.
Under the chorus, a rhythmic piano underscores his sanguine air: "They
claim to walk unafraid/ I'll be clumsy instead."
Of course, it's precisely because the singer refuses to cower in the face
of life's risks that it is truly he who walks unafraid, even in his own
clumsiness. Whether intentional or not, the song is really the tale of
R.E.M. after Bill Berry. Because the band is unafraid of its new potential
to be clumsy, Up comes off as anything but.