A fellow R.E.M. fanatic told me he thought the boys (okay, now grown men) from Athens, Ga., resembled a corporation more than a band these days. That's kind of a bummer for anybody who loves R.E.M. as much as I do -- and as much as he used to -- but after listening to Reveal, I can't help but agree. While guitarist Peter Buck's side gig with the Seattle band The Minus 5 feels vital and creative, his work with R.E.M. seems to be strictly by the numbers.
The big thing this time out appears to be tinkering with electronic gizmos that make funky sounds but don't guarantee good music. From the opening song, you feel like you're in for R.E.M.'s version of the Wall of Sound. Still, if you liked "Shiny Happy People" from Out Of Time or "Everybody Hurts" from Automatic For The People, they've made sure you'll find something to like here. In fact, the CD is loaded with mellow songs. Nothing pops out of the speakers here like the aggressively funky "The Lotus" on Up or the driving "The Wake-Up Bomb" did on New Adventures in Hi-Fi (which is a great album, by the way). This one's so mellow, in fact, it conjures up a variety of one-liners while listening -- "This is the kind of music you'd make if you were getting your rapid eye movement during afternoon naps." Okay, I know that's mean, since Michael Stipe and the gang are now over 40.
Sure, there are some good things -- "I've Been High" features the kind of poetic lyrics that Stipe is now famous for, and "I'll Take The Rain" is a nice ballad, albeit only a shadow of stuff like "Find The River" or "Nightswimming."
The pop-ready "Imitation of Life" seems like a case of going back to the "Shiny Happy People" session and recreating it as best they could, right down to the string section (but, sadly, without the B-52s' Kate Schneider's backing vocals). You'll probably hear the song on your radio this summer, and it may even stick in your head, but it represents what I always thought was the worst of R.E.M. -- the "necessary" pop songs. It seems like the kind of song you'd record if -- gasp! -- you were a corporation instead of a band. -- Ted S. McGregor, Jr.