What a sad state of affairs. R.E.M., whose sound helped revolutionize college radio and whose subsequent success proved that bands embraced by that medium were marketable beyond it, is now such a dim part of the pop-music firmament that lead singer Michael Stipe could get publicity for Reveal, the group's latest disc, only by outing himself (as if his sexual preference was news to anyone other than the readers of Time magazine). Even worse, Stipe has been emphasizing his continuing relevance in interviews by noting that he's only three years older than Brad Pitt and just two years Tom Cruise's senior -- a factoid that would mean something only if Americans were snapping up CDs by Pitt and Cruise in record numbers. And then there was R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck's April 21 arrest in London for drunken in-flight behavior that might have seemed rebellious twenty years ago but is now moderately pathetic. Betcha drummer Bill Berry is thanking his lucky brain aneurysm that he got out when he did.
Oh, yeah -- the new album. Stipe, Buck and bassist Mike Mills, supplemented by Scott McCaughey, Ken Stringfellow, Joey Waronker, Jamie Candiloro and more violinists than any outfit this side of the New York Philharmonic, trudge through a batch of cautious, overly ornate pop songs that feel as airless as a vacuum chamber. There are references aplenty here ("Saturn Return" apes mid-period Roxy Music, "Beat a Drum" is nicked so directly from the Beach Boys oeuvre that Brian Wilson should contact an attorney immediately), but the musicians treat them as if they're glass figurines or hollowed-out eggshells with several cracks already in them. "Imitation of Life" displays a bit of the old strum-strum, albeit with the addition of a kite factory's worth of strings, but most everything else is slow and pretty in a singularly empty way, like Cat Stevens on Thorazine. Stipe, meanwhile, croons as if he's been swaddled in gauze, and most of his lyrics are overwhelmingly reality-free. "Once you had a dream of oceans and sunken cities/ Memories of things you've never known, and you have never known," from "The Lifting," is fairly typical, though not quite as frightening as "There is a calm I haven't come to yet," found in "Disappear." If Stipe gets any calmer, he'll be declared dead.
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R.E.M.'s recent failures to connect with its audience (the band's previous release, 1999's Up, left fans cold for the same reasons this one will) stand in stark contrast to the recent upswing experienced by U2, a combo from the same era. Of course, U2's comeback has everything to do with its decision to revisit its early style, which is hardly a long-term creative solution -- but even that would be preferable to Reveal. So go ahead, guys. Make Murmur II, or More Fables of the Reconstruction, or even The Return of Life's Rich Pageant. Just don't do this again, okay?