R.E.M.’s Up at 20
“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.
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.
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]”
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.