There's a moment on R.E.M.'s new album, Up (the band's 13th or 14th release, depending on whether you count best-ofs), that will be instantly familiar to longtime fans. The song is called "The Apologist," and Michael Stipe nails his point home in the chorus by singing, over and over again, "I'm sorry, so sorry." It's more than a little reminiscent of the group's 1984 classic "So. Central Rain," but what it all means depends on whether you consider R.E.M.'s glass half full or half empty at this point.
Fans could argue that Stipe is offering a knowing homage to his younger days. Less charitable types among us would say that, like a senile uncle who forgets that he's told you the same story a million times, R.E.M. has been around so long that its members don't even realize when they're repeating themselves.
Clearly the band's collective memory must be short, because in interviews Stipe and Co. are boasting about how Up should startle listeners and leave people scratching their heads in bewilderment. The implication is that an album of slow, moody, lushly orchestrated ballads is such a radical artistic move that it will shock the group's fan base. The only problem is that the band already made such an album in 1992 with Automatic for the People.
At that time, an R.E.M. album built on willful lethargy still had a bit of subversive impact. This time around, it's merely a sure cause for swift drowsiness.
Forget for a minute that many of the drum tracks--in lieu of departed beat wrangler Bill Berry--have a cheap '80s beat-box quality reminiscent of Hall and Oates' "I Can't Go for That." Forget for a moment that the opening track, "Airportman," is more than four minutes of lame, pretentious pseudo-electronica, with a dull-as-dishwater Stipe mumbling to barely audible effect. Forget for a moment that at 64 minutes this album is way too long, succumbing to the modern trend of confusing quantity with consumer value. Forget also that the only two strong tracks--the sunny pop of "At My Most Beautiful" and the aforementioned "The Apologist"--sound a lot like the Beach Boys and Patti Smith, respectively. In fact, "The Apologist" is at least a first cousin to Smith's classic "Dancing Barefoot."
Forget all that stuff. The real reason that this album sucks is that R.E.M. sounds bored, uninspired and strangely anachronistic. The rare times that Stipe seems really engaged, he's generally donning a vocal affectation about as ill-fitting as the black feather boa he wore to last week's VH1 Fashion Awards. Check out the annoying "hey-heys" of "Lotus" for quick reference.
In reality, as early as 1988's Green, this band was starting to sound tired, although it managed to reinvigorate itself with examples of studio craftsmanship like Out of Time. The band deserves much credit for stubbornly staving off obsolescence as long as it has, but what's been noticeable on the last few albums is now unmistakable: These guys have run out of musical and lyrical means to express themselves.
The band certainly did its credibility no favors by carrying on without Berry, renouncing an earlier vow to split if any member left. Maybe they were just trying to uphold another old vow: to stay together until New Year's Eve 1999, and conclude their last gig as the year 2000 begins. Based on the sorry evidence of Up, they may just barely limp to that finish line.
The Beach Boys
This has been a great decade for Beach Boys collectors. After ages of redundant hit compilations and uninspired new releases, it was easy to give up on America's favorite traveling jukebox.
But early in the '90s, Capitol finally got around to reissuing the band's original '60s LPs on a series of "twofer" packages. Those great releases are now sadly out of print, but they were followed by two beautiful boxed sets. The Good Vibrations box was a five-CD set of all the essentials, along with a treasure trove of newly unearthed material. It was a loving tribute to a three-decade career filled with countless ups and downs. Then came the crowning archival achievement of The Pet Sounds Sessions. This four-CD set is completely devoted to deconstructing the 1966 masterpiece with outtakes, demos, alternate versions, a cappella mixes and any number of related curios. While casual observers must have been dumfounded by such attention to one album's worth of pop songs, true believers were in harmony heaven.
The attention to detail continues with Endless Harmony, another trip into the vaults, released to coincide with the recent VH1 documentary of the same name. The CD kicks off with an unusually jazzy vocal workout on "Soulful Old Man Sunshine." The tune has an almost swing arrangement that is unlike anything else in the band's catalogue. A snippet of the song's writing session serves to contrast the tune's bare-bones genesis with the full vocal attack of the finished version.
In a similar before-and-after approach, we get a solo piano demo for a song titled "Sail Plane Song," which is followed by the massively and gloriously over-the-top (and retitled) "Loop De Loop." Sound effects, timpani, carnival barkers, rinky-tink pianos, tubas and more of those amazing harmonies all contribute to one great giggle of a tune, a genuine sonic laugh track.
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In contrast to the above, there is a haunting version of Brian Wilson's early-'70s mortality epic "'Til I Die." It begins with a lonely sounding bass and adds vibraphones and other individual instruments one by one until the song suddenly stops, only to begin anew with vocals. It's a slow, sad and ultimately fatalistic song that reveals--maybe too clearly--the dark underside of this band's fun-fun-fun image.
The rest of the set is a grab bag of live cuts, unreleased songs, and some stereo remixes. At times it almost seems as if tracks were randomly picked from the documentary and scrambled to avoid any overt sign of conceptual coherence. It's all enjoyable stuff and endlessly fascinating for the band's earnest cult, but overall it's not quite up to the level of this decade's earlier instant classics.