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“Dolby’s Rupees: R.E.M. – Up.”


What should music be? What should music do, accomplish?

It seems like such a basic question but I think sometimes it’s necessary to re-brandish it when things get out of control, things become too cultural, voyeuristic, we put musicians under a microscope and they become “monsters” [1]. After all, no matter the success they achieve, they’re only human, and perhaps even more so.

Things are pretty touch and go, I think, these days, in our society, so I’m not really going to comment on anything that’s going on in the news, but I will say that, although you see my playlist there attempting in my own feeble way to celebrate the black arts, I’m honestly more likely to drift to white music (I am white for the record), in these times, for a couple reasons. One, to be perfectly frank, I can sense a certain sociological umbrage before my attempt to understand and internalize what it is to be “black” — they’d rather I just fu**ed off at times like these. Two, my “white” music as an aural landscape represents less of a cultural assimilation than rap or soul, and so by virtue of that is more supernatural and less political, naturally [2], and thereby encompasses more of an “escape,” something in high demand in this current riotous time.

I typically think of Up as being adamantly R.E.M.’s most underrated album of their career [3] but upon further review, I notice that the critical reception was a little more checkered than I thought. Rolling Stone gave it four stars, that is, saying it “embeds the history of slow rock into its songs without falling to mimicry” [4]. Truth be told, and its discursive path to permanence is beset on many sides with friction which I won’t get into, but I remember getting word specifically of this Michael Stipe rant in the wake of Up’s release and reception something along the lines of saying that if any other band had issued this exact LP, it would have been vaunted into eliteness in the canon, so to speak, and that R.E.M. were being penalized by being held to an especially high standard, given their body of work and successes. This was before the age of Metacritic, which takes a composite score of an album’s ratings across major journals like Rolling Stone, Spin, NME and The Guardian et. al., but the reviews of Up were pretty favorable, save for a three stars out of five from The Guardian, two and a half from Allmusic and 6.1/10 from Pitchfork. Is it possible that Michael Stipe read Pitchfork in 1998? I suppose.

Maybe it’s just that Stipe knew they’d compiled a masterpiece and had even the minutest ambivalence toward his new creation really stick in his craw.

Billy Corgan had an interesting tidbit on Howard Stern on the difference between “subjectivity” and “objectivity” in relation to songwriting and its qualitative absorption on the part of the masses. According to him, being “objective” about one’s own creative output entailed a level of absolute certainty as to the prevalence of its lasting value, and this was an insight of which he was intermittently capable, at other times falling into pure “subjectivity,” which would be like blindly amassing a musical body and throwing it out there completely oblivious to whether or not it deserved praise [5].

I guess, anyway, that this post is my unofficial endorsement of Michael Stipe’s creative “objectivity,” because Up [6], whether or not it’s actually R.E.M.’s best album, an idea which I’m not RULING OUT nor am officially endorsing, occupies a “singular” spot in the band’s discography, as somebody once similarly and aptly said in those exact words, of Led Zeppelin’s Presence.

Actually, what’s more, both albums, Led Zeppelin’s Presence, the recording of which bookended a near-fatal car accident involving Robert Plant, and Up, the first R.E.M. project since Bill Berry’s on-stage brain aneurysm and subsequent departure from the band. With this sort of calamitous urgency as its vehicle, I think, a band becomes especially capable of grafting an undeniable VIBE that they perhaps never achieved before, under the old, under-control circumstances. I’d even go so far as to claim that the tiptoeing beauty of Guns ’s Roses’ “November Rain” was the result of an especial brand of melancholy within the mind of Axl Rose, who, as many of us know from copious reports, received some pretty staunch rejection and browbeating from Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, in response to his voiced interest in touring with Nirvana.

What cannot be denied, anyway, is that Up is unlike anything the band had recorded up to this point, evident baldly in their use of drum machine in the stead of Bill Berry. To compensate for the departure of organic drum sound, the band construct these complex and gorgeous clusters of sound to inform classics like “Parakeet,” on which the governing rhythm piano is treated into something stupendously watery, soft and pliable [7], earmarking an ideal backdrop for Stipe’s firm, direct and cutting vocals. Even opener “Airportman” saunters in as something bewilderingly humid, with a gentle synth sound that’s so ambient yet also so prominent in how it occupies the mix, that the result foments as defiantly unique and distinct.

Ok, just to get this out there, the general understanding of the Up pecking order goes something like this, and erroneously, as this is a severely misunderstood album recently ranked second to last amidst R.E.M.’s discography in a poll by NME. For the simpletons, Up’s efficacy only goes so far as “Daysleeper,” the mildly amusing but ultimately mundane and forgettable lead single. After that, “Lotus” and “At My Most Beautiful” seem to fall in line on the second tier, both released as singles as well and tasked with transforming R.E.M. into an MTV-darling boy band, apparently, so heinously maligned is the endeavor of actually enjoying Up as a whole, which truth be told is the only way to enjoy it [8].

That is, not coincidentally, of the four singles, the final one, “Suspcicion,” is both on one hand too soft and deliberate for radio and is also the clear-cut best song out of the four, wallowing in its own indulgent, teeming and desirous beauty like a narcissistic musical adbuster. Hey, these guys were always college rock, before they turned into “monsters” [9].

After that comes, well, the rest of the album. But when the cat’s away the mice will play. And, as I’ve mentioned the first three songs already, track four “Hope” might have rabidly bit radio to the point of its extolment as the band’s best song to date. “Hope” is a popular rock song that lacks exactly nothing, with one of Peter Buck’s most brilliant riffs to date (not minimally for its awe-inspiring knack for interlocking harmoniously with Michael Stipe’s vocal) and rabid, maniacal lyrics from Michael Stipe which handle the theme of fatal disease and culminate with the bizarre denouement of “And you want to cross your DNA / Cross your DNA with something reptile”. “At My Most Beautiful” and “The Apologist” are the sort of serviceable pedestrian pop that might have landed itself on the thoroughly listenable Out of Time but things are bolstered into celestial heights with the following track “Sad Professor,” a song that should have been the second single after the more upbeat, Apollonian “Hope.” “Sad Professor,” as the title might suggest, is an unadulterated vial of intoxicating melancholy, letting the quip “Dear readers / I’m not sure where I’m headed / I’ve gotten lost before / I’ve woke up stone drunk / Face down on the floor” roll into a chorus that’s surgingly cathartic and memorable. The chorus in “Sad Professor,” as it were, oversees a veritable explosion of electric guitar (and sorry to make this comparison but “Good for Me” by Amy Grant, another American Southerner, wields a similar guitar augmentation within chorus and enjoys similarly a similarly potent climax as a direct result). This is all juxtaposed nicely by a plain but sovereign acoustic guitar/electric feedback blueprint of the verse, hence materializing with the utmost explosion as a firebrand in rock music. Lyrically, also, the song is set up in an interesting way, with the first chorus playing “Everybody hates a bore / Everybody hates a drunk”, the second one progressing to “Everyone hates a sad professor / I hate where I wound up” and then the third one collecting itself into a composite of the two: “Everybody hates a bore / Everybody hates a drunk / Everybody hates a sad professor / I hate where I wound up”. Short of getting into technical poetry terms, here, it definitely makes for a really rad listen, and it’s the sort of gratifying detail you’re likely to miss on the first two, or even 10, listens.

Ever the master sequencers (if not single issuers), R.E.M. slot the tense and unapproachable “You’re in the Air” after this centerpiece that culminates side a, to slowly but surely regain momentum with the passable “Walk Unafraid” and then “Why Not Smile,” a song full of the gentle Up beauty I allude to all over this post. “Daysleeper” and “Diminished” form a nice yin and yang of radio single next to spooky ambience, again with “Parakeet” one of my favorite songs on the album.

At this point we’ve only got one track to go on this hypnotic, otherworldly ride. You’ve likely by this point incurred a substantial amount of cognitive dissonance, with how trippy many of these songs are and how they seem to race by in less time than they really occupied. Well, never fear, because closeur “Falls to Climb” is not a song you’re likely to forget, once you hear it. What’s more, it plays as bona fide singer/songwriter fare, with a simplicity of instrumentation and an inspiring, adamant lyrical session that comes to a head around the heartbreaking chorus of “Who cast the final stone? / Who threw the crushing blow? / Someone has to take the fall / Why not me?” As almost seems appropriate, this album and especially this song, in light of this, have gone underappreciated by the critical and the listening world in the years and decades since, but its clear melodic certainty and almost lazy emission of undulating, shifty musical textures make it the perfect summer listen, and yes, R.E.M.’s Pet Sounds, as I am perhaps platitudinously claiming.

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[1] Here I’m referencing the title of R.E.M.’s 1994 album Monster, which was a followup to a strident success critically and commercially, Automatic for the People.

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[2] Of no coincidence, Up does not have a political bone in its body, contrasted pointedly against the less hazy and textural Document.

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[3] It’s probably between Up and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, with perhaps some votes coming in for Out of Time and Reckoning along the way.

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[4] Startling to me, Ann Powers even in the same article states that “(Radiohead album OK) Computer is the Pet Sounds to this Sgt. Pepper,” whereas I’d actually considered referring to Up as “R.E.M.’s Pet Sounds” in my title for this piece.

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[5] On the off chance, or rather the “on” chance, that anybody reading this is a petulant, churlish Billy Corgan hater, please let me inform you that he’s written every good song by the band Hole, in case you didn’t know that already.

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[6] I suppose it depends on your tastes and even your mood but it’s probably fallacious to rank Up ahead of the undeniable masterpiece Automatic for the People which is composed of similarly down, sonically multifarious and vaguely psychedelic pop elixir, to Up.

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[7] In light of the psychedelic blueprint rendered onto subtly simple chord progressions here, it’s especially puzzling to me that Ann Powers of Rolling Stone would have referred to Ok Computer as the Pet Sounds and Up as the Sgt. Pepper’s and not vice versa, especially given that R.E.M. is American and Radiohead is British, and also given R.E.M.’s predilection for mentioning “California” and the “low desert,” et. al. I suppose the reasoning is just that Pet Sounds came out first, like Ok Computer, and therein lies the analgous division.

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[8] And this is coming from an ardent lover of playlists and mixes but downright I could see the songs from Up not “playing nice” with the other ones, for the especially keen vibe and sense of loss and longing. Just go with “Fall on Me” or “Moral Kiosk” for now, maybe.

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[9] Interestingly, Monster, which is supposed to be I guess a comment on the band being railroaded into becoming “rock stars” and radio denizens, contains what I’d classify as the band’s Motown song, “Tongue,” an astonishing testament to the glory of radio as something that can house a substantial, catchy and virulently infectious method of songwriting.

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