The second album of R.E.M.'s Third Phase (end of First Phase: Document; end of Second Phase: departure of drummer Bill Berry) is not much different, and certainly no better, than the first, 1999's Up, which should have been titled Down. It offers more of the same: pet sounds drenched in orchestrations, Michael Stipe wrapped in despair, Pete Buck tangled in his guitar strings. It's of a piece, once more: No radio-friendly singles here, save for "Imitation of Life," which sounds to these ears like that Alan Parsons projectile "Eye in the Sky." The rest offers R.E.M. as background music, pretty sonic wallpaper that brightens up any room until it's made audible; then, you might wonder just where you put that copy of Reckoning. Little surprise, though, that Reveal's been greeted with open arms and open legs by the rock-crit masses: It's gorgeous enough to sound deep, even if the lyrics are among the most shallow and indecipherable ever penned on a napkin by a harried, hurried Stipe ("The dragonflies are busy buzzing me/Seahorses if we were in the sea"). Reveal is the sound of grown men making grown-up music -- adult-contemporary pop for the ex-college-rocker with a wife, two kids and a mortgage. This is the album you play when you want to feel grown-up; it renders the back catalogue, Chronic Town through Out of Time, a nostalgic soundtrack, at least for those of us who came of age to this band's fables of art-rock reconstruction.
A publicist recently told me that "quiet is the new loud" (yes, and heroin is the new golf), and there's probably no better marketing slogan for the brand of orchestral pop burbling out of radio's earshot; Brian Wilson could buy himself a shitload of sandboxes, if someone tallied up the lost revenue made off the swiping taking place all around him. Last time out, Stipe was at his most beautiful ripping off Wilson; this time out, he and the boys are batting around a "Beachball" and trying to "Beat a Drum," all the while admitting "I've Been High" -- three Pet Sounds lifts instead of just one, for good measure. But to nick a man's sound without stealing his vision is a pale homage, and too much of Reveal reveals, well, nothing at all; the most Stipe can promise his true love this time around is that he's "gonna be a star," which is about as vapid a declaration as one can make. And how many times can a pop star feign despair by threatening to disappear? So, do it already.
If Up sauntered toward a new direction -- a return to the bedroom after so many years loitering in the overstuffed arena -- then Reveal simply stands still; like Carnie Wilson, it never breaks a sweat. It's a record you put on for a long summer nap, white noise for the true believers who insist that to grow up, one must also shut up. Yes, as crits insist, Stipe has never sounded lovelier; his voice rings now, the murmur rendered pristine and powerful. And yes, Buck's stint in Tuatara has broadened the scope of sounds; his definition of exotica no longer means simply using a mandolin instead of a guitar. But, put simply, Reveal is a bore -- a lot of beautiful nothings, sung and performed by men who once meant everything.
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