1998's Up felt like a truly important step for R.E.M., their finding a new way of expressing themselves. Down to a threesome after the departure of drummer Bill Berry, the band shook off potential irrelevancy by heightening their songs' emotional power while broadening their musical range. Nearly rock-free, Up saw the band using synthesizers and drum-programming almost more than their usual rock-band instruments. The album's strength lies in this new, wide-open sound, one which emphasizes atmosphere as much as traditional rock/pop songwriting.
Musically, Reveal follows Up‘s lead but pushes even further in that direction. Guitarist Peter Buck has traded his electric in for an acoustic, and then allowed guitars to generally take a backseat to piano, synths and strings. The rock energy that drove much of their early career has given way to a perfect sense for texture and sound. Reveal is a lush, dreamy pop mood-piece that hovers in the realm of rumination and introspection.
While continuing to develop a more refined and layered sound, the band is tapping back into the more enigmatic side of their music. As the band grew in popularity, their songwriting style got crisper, more pop, less “arty”. Reveal finds the band retreating into introspection and mystery, yet doing so within the context of their new sound. Reveal has the sound of Up, but the RE.M. style it most closely resembles in terms of songwriting is the melancholy, midtempo pop of Fables of the Reconstruction. While things have changed greatly since those days, as evidenced by Michael Stipe’s less timid, more powerful singing and the presence of song lyrics in the liner notes, Reveal has a number of things in common with Fables and other early forays into artful melancholy, particularly lyrics that emphasize the personal without being as straightforward as their ballads have been in recent years (especially on Out of Time, Automatic for the People and Up) and a style of songwriting which is vaguer, moodier and darker.
Reveal‘s 12 tracks document people searching for some sort of truth or happiness. The album’s opener, “The Lifting”, is a dreamy pop swirl with Stipe singing about some type of seminar of self-examination. Other tracks, like the slightly countryfied “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)” or the Leonard Cohen-ish “She Just Wants to Be” follow the life journeys of other people, but all convey a feeling of searching for a place to belong or a feeling of contentment. On “I’ve Been High”, a low ballad that is one of the album’s best tracks, Stipe sings, “I’ve been high, I’ve climbed so high but life sometimes just washes over me.” On “Disappear”, he has similar thoughts of unsettledness: “There is a calm I haven’t come to yet / I spend half my life figuring out what comes next.”
Complementing the album’s stellar lyrics of personal disenchantment and longing is a style of songwriting that emphasizes both mystery and hope, through dreamy atmosphere. Reveal has a cohesive mood of pondering and deep thought, yet musically takes R.E.M. in many new directions. A few are especially compelling: the abstract poetry of “Saturn Return”, the emotionally sweeping ballad “I’ll Take the Rain”, the first single “Imitation of Life”‘s unique mix of sunny pop and strings, the faux-French pop of “Beachball”, and “Summer Turns to High”, a warped Beach Boys-style lullaby that’d work nicely as a flip-side to Up‘s equally Brian Wilson-influenced “At My Most Beautiful”.
Considering that R.E.M.‘s legacy is well-established and their place in rock history confirmed, it’s indescribably pleasant to see that they’re doing some of their most intriguing, most complicated and most fulfilling work now, almost 20 years after their first release. Reveal beautifully pushes the group along in this next phase of their career; it showcases their newfound musical confidence and openness while containing the same artful tunefulness and lyrical impact that made the best of their early works so memorable and lasting.