Up will always be known as the album where jangle pop-rock legends R.E.M. went electronic. While far from being a “when Dylan went electric” moment, the departure from their guitar-centric, alternative rock sound was divisive at the time. “Daysleeper”, the main single, chimed forth with a catchy pop-rock style that felt more like classic R.E.M., but the rest of the record’s runtime was spent on expansive, sometimes psychedelic, other times dirge-like, electronic pop explorations.
Many have reassessed Up as a culmination of what could be seen as “the new R.E.M.”, which could arguably have begun with their smash hit, Automatic For the People, which sported a far more emotive and cinematic sound and brought the singer from lovable mumbling pop nerd, further into the spotlight to become a far more expressive, borderline mystical front man. With hindsight, calling Up “an electronic album” feels a bit dramatic. Really, what we have here is a more processed album, full of sounds coming from all angles, that calls to mind albums by Beck or Radiohead, artists who escaped the need to fit their songs neatly into a specific genre.
Up is, first and foremost, a studio album. Whatever sound is needed is found and brought into the mix, regardless of how such sounds can be reproduced at a live rock show. There is no telling what instruments might hit your ears next, and yes, many of them are drum machines and synths. Still, it is just as likely that 12-string guitars and harmonicas might be the chosen thing to perfect a particular moment in a specific song. R.E.M. stretch themselves to do their songs justice, and for this reason, Up becomes one of the last genuinely great efforts by a legendary group who decided to grow out of an established comfort zone.
This 25th anniversary remaster adds a tasteful amount of modern emphasis to electronic bass and keyboard here. It can be challenging to make electronic-infused music that ages well. Mainstay acts and entire subgenres can become redundant or “retro” overnight with the advent of some new advancements in technology, so it can be hard to make electronic-infused music that truly feels “timeless”. Even in Up‘s low points, where the band feel like they are trying to “do a trip-hop thing” or “do a Radiohead” thing, R.E.M.’s identity as an utterly idiosyncratic group always shines through. This reissue comes complete with the remaster of the LP, along with a bonus disc which includes a well-recorded live performance by the band during the the 1999 taping of an episode of the teen drama Party of Five in which the characters go to an R.E.M. concert (it was a different time).
R.E.M. were most certainly not the only late 1990s alternative rock group experimenting with stepping away from guitar-forward music. It’s debatable that Up benefited and suffered by being in the shadow of OK Computer, Radiohead’s immensely successful push towards more experimental, technologically advanced ways of approaching the idea of a “rock band”. It seems fitting that Radiohead producer/band member Nigel Godrich assisted Pat McCarthy during the recording of Up. The dismissive and rather unfair thing would be to say that R.E.M. was trying to keep up with kids, trying to ride the coattails of something like OK Computer, which came out a year before Up was released. A more fair and accurate assessment seems to be that these were two bands that, most likely, had formed a bit of a bond and shared a dialogue during their correspondence about sound, rock, and how to approach it all. Change was simply in the air for alternative rock.
Radiohead opened for R.E.M. in 1995, when R.E.M. were touring on their beloved album, Monster, which after years of making jangly, country, infused indie rock, finally saw them allowing their music to lean into the distorted grunge guitars of the era, but with a far more queer feeling glam edge to the whole affair. It’s energy that singer Michael Stipe couldn’t help but bring to the table in his later phase as a frontman. Radiohead were supporting The Bends, which, in hindsight, sounded more like a new millennium, angular rock album than the Big Muff slacker acts of the time.
R.E.M. similarly had always sort of existed outside of their own time. Despite cutting their teeth by touring with punk bands like Black Flag in the early 1980s and befriending grunge heroes like Nirvana in the 1990s, the band hailed from Georgia, which, among other idiosyncratic bands, had a scene that produced the B-52’s, who never quite fit into any specific genre or time. R.E.M. were always going to be first and foremost themselves.
While OK Computer is the easy thing to bring up when you look at a rock ensemble experimenting in the new millennium, it seems equally evident that the other part of the equation that creates Up‘s musical DNA is something much older. It might not initially seem obvious, but right from the first track, “Airportman”, a line can be drawn to 1960s pop, specifically Glen Campbell, of all people. R.E.M. began covering Campbel’s classic hit “Wichita Lineman” in the years that led to the recording of Up, and Stipe has often sighted the song as being among his favorites. It’s sung from the perspective of the titular lineman, and nothing really happens. The lineman simply explains what it’s like to do his job day in and day out.
Despite its seeming simplicity, an emotive, lonely feeling comes from it, and metaphors can be read between the lines rather than within them. Throughout Up, we see similar pop studies of various characters and their vocation or specific stations in life. “Airport Man”, right from the get-go, signals the improvements made from the last iteration of the album to this newly remastered version (listen on headphones) and serves not only as a stunning introduction to Up. It is something of an electropop wonder that, similar to “Wichita Lineman”, is sung from the perspective of a titular “Airport Man”.
Similarly, the single “Daysleeper” is told from the perspective of a dreamy-eyed “screen” who reveals anecdotes, both novel and mundane, about working at night while the rest of the world sleeps. We also meet on our journey, “Sad Professor”, who tells us, his “dear readers”, that “everyone hates a bore, everyone hates a drunk”, and that he “hates where he wound up”. While not quite a vocation, the titular character in “The Apologist”, also seems in accord with the theme of character study. It’s the one song that truly lets the Monster era guitar surge forward, with its particular character telling us of his sorrows and pridefully shouting, “Sorry, so sorry,” a chorus that can’t help but call to mind “So Central Rain”, a staple from R.E.M.’s earliest days who moans the phrase “I’m sorry” throughout its iconic chorus.
Pop influences from the 1960s can be heard not only in Stipes’s lyrics but also in Up‘s instrumental aspects. “At My Most Beautiful”, among one of R.E.M.’s most breathtaking ballads, brings the piano to the forefront and even sports vocal harmonies and bass harmonica, which recalls the Beach Boys‘ magnum opus, Pet Sounds. The song is an utterly gorgeous trip through the night, as Stipes repeats the simple chorus mantra “I’ve found a way”, which fills listeners with a gentle but transcendent feeling of liberation and quiet joy. Drawing a line to Pet Sounds makes sense for much of this record, and if we keep the parallel narrative going, OK Computer as well.
Up and OK Computer succeed in their experimentation because their thesis is not about trying to cram a dance beat into a rock song; instead, they aim to express more complicated feelings on a larger scale by any means necessary. While it may seem tame and common to the average listener now, the Beach Boys’ departure from fun in the sun surf rock to introspective songs about loneliness that sported full orchestral arrangements was somewhat radical and did not sell well upon release. Despite this, the album was noticed by the Beatles and was often cited by them as being the partial inspiration to push for something more with Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Speaking of which, the 1960s references don’t seem to end. Even an electronic forward song like “Suspicion” sports a George Harrison guitar part in its climax. The track is a standout, and so is the following song, “Hope”, which features some of the strangest lyrics on Up (about a kid wanting to become a lizard?) but is propelled by a glorious keyboard pulse momentum that calls to mind Krautrock and groups like Stereolab. “In the Air” is among the album’s lower points, which still sports a like-minded eclectic nature but strikes the listener as more or less odd for the sake of being perhaps a little too self-serious.
A highlight is “Why Not Smile”, which begins as a simple acoustic song and explodes into a borderline shoegaze, noise guitar jam. In the track listing it serves as both an introduction to Up‘s most enduring song, “Daysleeper”, and an outro to the the main chunk of the album. “Daysleeper” is undeniably catchy and wonderful, but perhaps it makes it so that the back half of this LP feels, at least upon first listen, anticlimactic. After the single’s sing-along chorus fades, songs like “Parakeet” and “Diminished” seem, well, diminished in the shadow of “Daysleeper”. That being said, they are far from weak efforts and fit cohesively into the greater pallet of the record.
“Fall to Climb” serves as a beautiful epilogue, full of a sort of tragic acceptance, as Stipe sings, “Someone has to take the fall, why not me?” with a melodic lilt to the words that strangely calls to mind the way singer Thom Yorke sings the phrase “I’m not here” in the haunted OK Computer ballad “How to Disappear Completely”. Allegedly, while they were on tour together, Stipe gave the phrase “I’m not here, this isn’t happening” to Yorke to use as a sort of mantra to ward off the anxiety and pressure of being in the limelight. While it’s doubtful such minute detail was intentional, the phrases from both songs seem to echo with haunting beauty and give further context to Up, an album that spews forth with the beauty of what it is to keep getting by in a lonely, ever-expanding world.