At My Most Beautiful
After the loud rock of Monster and New Adventures it's probable that REM's music would have developed in a quieter direction anyway. But Bill Berry's unexpected departure at the very start of the sessions for their eleventh album undoubtedly left the band in shock, and in the mood to ponder and reflect rather than sing out. Up is a downbeat record in every way, with lyrics where isolation, doubt and death are ever present.
It starts well, with the search for new ideas bearing fruit. The lopsided funk, electric pianos and distorted vocals of Lotus is surprising but it's a well-constructed song and a good introduction to REM's new sound world. It also sets the mood, as it sounds like someone willing themselves to stand up after a bad fall.
The buzzing electronic pop of Hope which sounds like a mainstream version of New York legends, Suicide, seems to inspire Stipe. There are other good songs in Daysleeper, the compelling The Apologist and the plaintive and beautiful You're In The Air with its imaginative arrangement of mournful, fizzy guitar feedback, gently ticking percussion and strings.
But Up highlights the major problem with this phase of REM's music; poor quality control. At 14 tracks it's far too long and sags badly in the middle of its 63 minutes running time, as Buck and Mills indulge themselves in a series of Beach Boys pastiches. Of course, no sane human being dislikes Pet Sounds. But there are just too many tasteful chiming vibraphones and soporific Californian textures. Stipe doesn't sound convinced or stimulated as he mumbles and meanders through Suspicion and the irritating At My Most Beautiful. One track of this kind of thing, for example the edgy Parakeet, would have been enough.
At the time of its release Up seemed intriguing if a little disappointing. With hindsight it's actually the best of the three post-Berry studio albums. It's frustrating that the promising use of electronics showcased here wasn't followed up. Instead REM returned to being a big rock band, but with decidedly patchy results.