At Their Most Beautiful

R.E.M.’s Up at 20

Up Limited Edition

“Is it true? Did Bill Berry leave R.E.M.?,” an audibly distraught  Thom Yorke said to the audience before the encore of Radiohead’s show November 1, 1997 at The Babylon in Munich Germany.  

This was before information travelled at the speed of light via social media, and Yorke, close to R.E.M. and especially Michael Stipe, who “taught him to be a frontman,” he revealed years later in an interview with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, got the answer he didn’t want to hear. An audience member confirmed it, and Yorke said, “Fuck, well, this one’s for R.E.M.,” before launching into a aching, solo acoustic version of  “So. Central Rain,” a recording of which sadly doesn’t exist, appropriate given the silvery, ephemeral nature of early R.E.M. and its effect on their legions of followers. It’s a model that’s now sadly outmoded and anachronistic.

Up Tour poster, Berlin 1999

Yorke, like any R.E.M. maven, understood the gravity of Berry’s departure within the realm of the band’s close-knit circle, and likely, as most have, recognized it as the beginning, in earnest, of the album Up , although they had demos recorded prior as the band acknowledged as the raison d’etre for them staying together. And, perhaps not coincidentally, Yorke’s Radiohead would take the reins from R.E.M. as the world’s most “important” band around this time while supporting OK Computer—the one that expanded their audience while broadening their horizons artistically. Yes, R.E.M. became a three-legged dog, to paraphrase Stipe, but it was also a three-legged dog abruptly thrown into ice water before it could even develop phantom limb syndrome. Getting to a point of stasis wasn’t easy for R.E.M., and Up is the often labored sound of a newly pared down band struggling fitfully on their own terms to reinvent themselves without not just a drummer but a major part of their songwriting process. But it’s often the sound of everything seemingly falling apart, which yielded some downright beautiful moments in their sad-eyed despair.

R.E.M. always sang for the lonely, but had grown comfortable with the occasional arena anthem sing-along. There are none to be found on Up, bar “Lotus,” which was overthought and overwrought production-wise on album, although rendered incendiary when played live on the album’s subsequent tour.  “Sad Professor” is emblematic of the album’s hesitant, soft-hewn approach that at times succeeds spectacularly–its reluctance to venture from acoustic guitar into an electrified dirge mirroring the self-loathing of the protagonist who only simmers, never bursting and blooming, as he laments, “everyone hates a bore/everyone hates a drunk,” without a trace of self-pity. It’s self-aware exposition, something Stipe grew better and better at as he progressed as a lyricist as years progressed, even when fewer and fewer were listening.

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Opener “Airportman” nods to Eno’s Music For Airports in both title and sound, with chiming electronic modulations tastefully framing some of Stipe’s most murmured intonations since, well, Murmur. The stuttery synth-driven “Hope” apes Suicide’s metronomic pulsations with a melodic tincture of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.“ “Parkakeet” is jaunty and playful Beach Boys-esque ebullience before drifting into quixotic dreamscape territory at its crescendo, with Stipe pleading at the chorus, “Open the window to lift into our dream, baby, you can start to breathe,” hinting at a liberation and rebirth worked indefatigably towards throughout the album. “Falls to Climb,” Stipe’s rewrite of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” is a jittery modulating denouement that’s the logical continuation The Elephant Man-referencing “New Test Leper” from New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and an illumination of just what makes Stipe’s character sketches so special—he wrote about the people no one else wanted, the pariahs, the freaks, the outsiders—here,  the scapegoat taking their crushing blow comes to find redemption, realizing, “my actions make me beautiful,” while accepting their fate (“Someone’s got to take the fall/Why not me?”) with resigned dignity.

“At My Most Beautiful” is the album’s most direct homage to SMiLE-era Beach Boys, and the most emotionally direct song on the album, with Stipe’s wide-eyed realization that, “I’ve found a way to make you smile” realizing the romantic optimism he was previously morbidly allergic to on love songs he found to be so “odious,” while “Why Not Smile” is the flipside of this, one of the most misinterpreted and brutal songs he’d ever written, starting off with a line brazenly intimating a suicide—“The concrete broke your fall,” before drifting into a reading of platitudes often handed to depressed individuals, sung with affected saccharine , as he urges sardonically, “why not smile/you’ve been sad for awhile.” He said of it on Matthew Perpetua’s Popsongs site, “With the opening line ‘the concrete broke your fall’ it feels pretty hardcore to me.  This song can be taken any number of ways, and that’s intentional…It’s an easy out, like, ‘Hey, smile! C’mon, the sun is shining’; which is good and fine if you’re in that headspace but not so much if you’re not.”

Up continued the trend that began on New Adventures in Hi-Fi—a precipitous sale slide for the band, particularly in the US. Reveal and Around the Sun would fare worse, as other two entries in the band’s Pat McCarthy produced trilogy, exhibiting the “weird” side of R.E.M., and really, not all emotionally dissimilar to Neil Young’s initially reviled “ditch trilogy” from the ‘70s in capturing a band rife with internal strife and emotional upheaval. But artistically? Ken Stringfellow, who played on Reveal and Around the Sun, and toured with the band as a sideman supporting Up, called it “astounding,” and had an interesting theory as to why the albums fared so poorly in the US, essentially positing that the early ‘90s were more amenable to mega-bands weathering radical artistic detours.  “With R.E.M [post-Monster], I think they only could’ve gotten bigger then would’ve been to cheese out more. The next album’s single [“E-Bow the Letter” from New Adventures in Hi-Fi] was a slow five-minute song. That mattered. They’re an intellectual band, and millions of fans aren’t gonna be intellectuals. U2 made a lot of classic sounding albums in the ‘00s, which brought them back to another level. They made their out there records in the (early to mid) ‘90s, which was probably good for them ultimately. R.E.M. made their out there records later, which probably cost them, until Accelerate. But that would’ve left me out of a job, because I played on a couple of them [Reveal and Around the Sun], so I’m not complaining. [laughs]”

R.E.M. Up, Warner Bros. 1998

Still, Up remains a disarmingly sincere album cloaked in waves of sonic experimentation that found the band zigging while listeners zagged and often balked.  It was rife with confusion and tension anathema to many in search of hubristic pre-millennial anthems, and in their stead were brilliant twilit ballads, failed, sometimes turgid, experiments, as their most esoteric influences were brought to the fore, but was a documentation of where the band were at the time. It’s where R.E.M. were in 1997—one of the world’s biggest bands, flaws under the microscope during their most transitional period.  It’s not the best entry point into the band’s catalog, and isn’t the band at their most beautiful—but it’s unfairly maligned, and is them at their most raw and vulnerable, dealing with adversity without instinctual, animalistic bombast and histrionics, but with a diffident shrug, striding cautiously while they once did so confidently. We all go there as human beings, so witnessing it happen to a massive rock band likely wasn’t comfortable for many, but R.E.M. were never about comfort—they were about sadness, truth, and sweetness—really, the crux of the human condition. They had these qualities in spades on Up, a strange detour for the most unlikely arena band ever, and a reminder that everybody struggles… sometimes.

 

2 thoughts on “At Their Most Beautiful

  • November 10, 2018 at 1:17 pm
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    I listen to the album from time to time as, nowadays, I simply push the shuffle button on my iTunes list and one of its songs pops up. Sometimes I seek it out though. I actually had the CD. My mother, back when I was in high school, used to come home from work with a new album for me. This was back in the late 90s when CD’s were 20 dollars. I knew this and I was always touched when she did this. It was one of the first R.E.M. albums I owned on that format. I had Out of Time on tape, well, my she did; I always wanted to play Endgame, she would let me but I don’t think that was her favorite song.

    That was what was and still special about R.E.M., the songs that most people don’t know. The Thom York story about his solo So. Central Rain is really great. He knew that song in 1998 because he listened to R.E.M., he studied the albums, each song (what is still the easiest bit of studying I’ve ever done, and one of the most wonderful experiences of my life).

    I was in college in the early 2000s and I remember how I would go to the OSU record shops, before the campus became Targets, Verizon stores, and Gamestops, i.e. a place for the young undergrads to spend mommy and daddy’s money, to find R.E.M. tapes and CD’s. There were always plenty, but some were hard to find. You could always find a copy of Green or Automatic for the People for 3 dollars, 5 dollars, sometimes more.

    There are ways to detail things that make those things, those feelings (excitement, joy, a consciousness, or an awareness) more understandable for those to which you are reporting. I don’t know those ways most times. I realize that R.E.M. has become a soundtrack of sorts for my life, they are my most cherished and beloved band. They are my favorite band.

    I’m 36 now and soon I’ll be 37, that’s just how it works, and I am just as thrilled with the band as I was back in the 90s and early 2000s. Yes, much of the jubilation of exploration and discovery is gone but we have become as comfortable as a warm winter sweater that I look for on chilly days.

    It’s a special thing to have a favorite band, to be able to follow what their doing, where they’re playing, when the next album’s coming out. But when they’re gone, yes, there’s a part of you that will always be glad for being a part of what happened but there’s a part of you, too, that is sad, somewhat downcast.

    R.E.M. have been reviewed and dissected by critics who lack the tools to put the band back together again. The last word on R.E.M., and mostly what you read about them today, is that they lost their way toward the end of their run and left on their own terms. I would disagree with just about all of that statement. I do not believe that the band ever went astray. If we are to listen to the final 4 albums of R.E.M.’s career there is some really great songs on all of them. I also do not believe that they left on their own terms. I presume that they felt the forces of said criticism, said judgement, the pressure of a record company, and the expectation and presumptions from the public at large that wanted, always, another Losing My Religion.

    The “3 legged dog” comment is very insightful and valid. Bill Berry contributed so much more than rhythm to the band. So, yes, there is that. That’s there. When he left the band was not the same and perhaps that weighed on them more than we know (I’m sure it probably did).

    So, I feel like I’ve gotten nowhere but that’s alright, because all I really wanted to say was thanks. Up is an album that is largely forgotten and doggedly, perpetually misunderstood. I would say, finally, that Up is not their best album but I couldn’t say, in the same sentence, which is. Suspicion is one of my darlings from the band. So, with much gratitude, thanks again. This article was very nostalgic for me and I thought I should write something to say thanks and maybe, for the next couple of times, I won’t hit shuffle; I’ll scroll down to the R’s.

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  • November 14, 2018 at 1:36 pm
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    I believe that Ryan Chinn’s comment was very heartfelt and pretty much on-the-money. (I’ll disagree a bit only on his idea that R.E.M. didn’t disband on their own terms; I think that they did.)

    I didn’t “truly” discover R.E.M. till about 1992. I was in my first year of graduate school and had a roommate who had a massive CD collection under his bed. Most of it was indie stuff that was a bit too “out there” for me at the time. A little too noisy; a little too lo-fi. One fateful day, though, I plucked Eponymous out from under that bed, strapped on my cheap-but-great-sounding headphones (granted, my hearing was better then at age 22 than it is now at 48), and slipped into musical bliss. Of course, I’d heard many of those songs before — here and there — but never like on that day. Talk about a revelation.

    I’ll admit that Radiohead surpassed R.E.M. as my favorite band ’round about the time of The Bends and “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” I feel that the post-Bill Berry albums are highly hit-or-miss, but each has its charms. Even Around the Sun had “Final Straw,” “Wanderlust,” and “Leaving New York” (the last of which I just listened to for the first time in years and was shocked at how well-designed it is). If those last albums have one major defect, it’s that some of them tended to be highly over-produced. They also seemed to forget for a while what a “secret weapon” Mike Mills’ backing/complimentary vocals were. Thankfully, they remembered again by the time of Accelerate and Collapse Into Now.

    R.E.M. will always be an important part of my life, and Automatic For the People, Life’s Rich Pageant, and Murmur — especially — will forever remain in my top 10 albums list. So, yes: band’s disband. Time flies forward. But the music remains. Still casts a spell. Still has the ability to induce musical bliss.

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