When R.E.M. morphed from altrock cult heroes to rock 'n' roll royalty in the late '80s, fans and critics prevailed upon the band to be more forthcoming. Though the band was happy to indulge in leftist sloganeering, that wasn't good enough: Many fans urged Michael Stipe to reveal more about himself. Stipe attempted to answer his critics on R.E.M.'s 1991 hit "Losing My Religion," in which the singer lamented his predicament. ("Oh no, I said too much/I haven't said enough.") It lacked the lyrical heft of Dylan or the Beatles, but despite its shortcomings, "Losing My Religion" is still a winning meditation on the maddening demands of fame.
Given R.E.M.'s legendary reticence, fans must have been encouraged when the group announced that its new album would be titled Reveal. Yet despite its implied promises of juicy introspection, Reveal is a misnamed mood piece that trips over its own artsiness. According to a bio provided by Warner Bros., the album is about "ascension" -- hence such song titles as "The Lifting," "I've Been High," and "Summer Turns to High." Unfortunately all this stargazing adds up to nothing.
Unlike their '80s counterparts U2, Stipe and company have failed to negotiate the changing currents of pop culture. In the wake of the departure of founding drummer Bill Berry, R.E.M. descended into a creative tailspin that resulted in another misnomered album, Up. In an effort to regain its footing, the band employed some very talented hired guns for Reveal, including former Posies multi-instrumentalist Ken Stringfellow, drummer Joey Waronker from Beck's band, and keyboardist Scott McCaughey. Though these musicians have contributed to some of contemporary pop's liveliest recordings, their performances can't animate R.E.M.'s stillborn new songs.
Indeed Reveal sounds like the work of a thoroughly confused band. "Chorus and the Ring" is a weird mishmash of the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Enya, while tunes such as "The Lifting" and "She Just Wants to Be" are failed attempts at epic, wide-screen pop. Moreover, Stipe's impenetrable lyrics seem unforgivable in light of the fact that he has said little about the effects of Berry's departure. Only a decade ago, R.E.M. was poised to make its Big Statement. Nowadays the band just seems lost.
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