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Monday, 14 May, 2001, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
REM reveal all
REM - Mike Mills, Peter Buck, Michael Stipe
REM rediscover their melodic spark
By BBC News's Nigel Packer

REM have created some commendably low-key music in recent years, as if consciously distancing themselves from their superstar status.

Last album Up was an adventurous affair which drew plenty of critical praise but left some cynics asking where they were hiding the tunes. Well, all can now be revealed.

The Georgia giants' latest album is their most lavish and unashamedly commercial work for a decade.

No doubt it will bring sighs of relief from the more conservative elements of their fanbase, not to mention those executives at Warner Brothers who forked out a king's ransom to retain their services during the mid-90s.

But all is not lost for those who prefer the band in more adventurous mode - as they succeed in rediscovering their melodic spark without sacrificing the experimental leanings of recent years.

Michael Stipe
Stipe's lyrics are a unique blend of the mystical, the folksy and the downright pretentious

The departure of drummer Bill Berry prior to Up was undoubtedly a blow for the band, but in the long-term it may have given them an unexpected boost.

Having decided that no-one could replace him on a full-time basis, the remaining trio have largely turned to drum machines instead - opening up a wealth of new possibilities in the process.

Indeed, the unplanned changes have re-introduced a long lost sense of mystery into their southern fried sound, as Peter Buck's crisp Rickenbacker twang takes a back seat to some dense electronic textures.

The bubbling keyboards and slick guitar lines of opening track The Lifting sound more like late-70s Genesis than REM, but for once in life this is unequivocally a good thing. Honest.

I've Been High showcases the new-found richness in Michael Stipe's voice, although his lyrics remain as oblique as ever - a unique blend of the mystical, the folksy and the downright pretentious.

There are namechecks for Charles Mingus and Galileo (the first since Bohemian Rhapsody?) and to help us through the maze we also get a lyric sheet - showing just how much things have changed since the days when obscurity was the band's trademark.


We're really interested in finding the beauty in music these days

Mike Mills
"It's not that the transparency of her earlier incarnations, now looked back on, weren't rich and loaded with beautiful vulnerability" sings Stipe on She Just Wants To Be - and suddenly you wish he'd stuck to good old fashioned mumbling.

But when he gets it right - and keeps it simple - he remains an original and powerful lyricist.

The album is at its weakest when the trio switch to automatic (for the people) mode.

Current single Imitation Of Life is the biggest culprit, a predictable jangle which sounds like a group of upstarts auditioning for the role of REM tribute band - and failing to land the job.

Elsewhere, though, they show more invention than a group of their vintage has any right to - from the eerie ballad Saturn Return to the high-tech Beach Boys cameo Summer Turns To High.

The delicate Beat A Drum even harks back to the days of Murmur and songs like Perfect Circle - when they knew how to write poignantly without lapsing into sentimentality.

"We're really interested in finding the beauty of music these days," bassist Mike Mills said in a recent interview.

It's an unusually lofty statement for such an unassuming figure to make, but immerse yourself in Reveal for a while and it soon becomes clear that he has a point.

Reveal is released by Warner Brothers on 14 May

See also:

15 May 01 | Music
REM's Reveal: Press reviews
11 May 01 | Music
REM's Reveal: Your views
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