With Drummer Gone, R.E.M. Reinvent Themselves

"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.

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

case, over).

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.