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I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Up

And then they were only three. The remaining members were reassuring reporters during the promotional interviews, that Bill Berry was happily living on a farm upstate. They themselves had not had a good time during the recording of the album. Without Berry as a mediator the different working styles (and personalities) of Mills and Buck clashed and they spent little time composing together, each feeling their ideas did not get heard by the other. They only united to nag Stipe about finishing lyrics (he was suffering from writer's block). They almost split up.

One can hear this on the album, there are a lot of ideas and they often do not click. But when they do it is amazing. The highs are extremely high. They had decided to use the opportunity of Berry leaving to try something new. It is not so much that they tried to go electronic, more that they in-cooperated drum machines and some other retro pre-electronic music sound machines. Only Stipes voice still makes the album distinguishable as REM (except one song, which I will mention later). You can also play, guess which instrument Peter Buck is playing with this album. While Mills always had been very versatile on albums, playing pianos, keyboards, accordion and guitar next to his bass, Buck had usually stayed with string instruments (guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, maybe bass). On Up he really got to (or was made to) stretch himself. He plays most of the drum machines, some keyboard and bass several times as the album is very guitar light. The few times he plays guitar are wonderful though. The e-bow is back on Walk Unafraid, the long sustained guitar which he first played on Country Feedback and was one of the main features on Automatic for the People can be heard on Sad Professor and I love his impressionistic soloing on Why not Smile.

I'm glad that unlike with Fables of the Reconstruction, where the stressful recording sessions led to the band disliking the album, some members have expressed a liking for the strange experiment that Up is. It is low energy and in parts seems to lack focus, but there are so many beautiful moments on it and being so different from any other REM album makes it more interesting to someone like me, who has listened extensively to them. Which is why I do not particularly agree with the decision to have Daysleeper even on the album, not to speak of it being a single (they were asked to make it a single by the record company). It is the only song, which sounds very REM like, but not as good as any old ones. The song also has Stipe writing very linear lyrics, with a clear topic, which I never find works as well as his stream of consciousness word salad or lyrics built around a few phrases. More linear lyrics are always difficult, because it is hit or miss if one can identify. Stipe started writing these kind of lyrics from New Adventures in HiFi and for a teenager it was sometimes hard to relate to middle age perspective. On this album it is Sad Professor, conveying the bitterness of middle age, on New Adventures it was Bittersweet Me, songs which always makes me think of the Edward Albee plays we were reading in English class or the time my theater group performed Season Greetings from Alan Ayckbourn.

Shout outs:
  • Just like Up, Hope is the opposite of it's name. It is a song about complete hopelessness and confusion at the meaninglessness of calamity. As strange as the lyrics are ("cross your DNA with something reptile") the emotional feeling it conveys is perfect. I also think it is one of the best use of the sound machines and layered keyboards on the album.

  • At My Most Beautiful is the only non-cynical love song Stipe wrote and he made it count. It is lovely.

  • Stipe seems to be sorry a lot. After So.Central Rain ("I'm sorryyyy!!!") on Reckoning he is now repeatedly "so sorry" on the apologist. In concerts they play the two songs back to back, because, yes REM can make fun of themselves. (go and look up Stipe's rant on koalas on a concert of the promotional tour for Up)

  • Thanks to Why Not Smile, I get to write the sentence "I really like the harpsichord on this song" again. I always felt like it was the more honest sibling to Everybody Hurts, also talking to somebody going through a mental health crisis, but instead of telling them to "go on" expressing helplessness. It even is written in the same key (D major) and starts with two counts of D and then G in the chord progression. All of this is my excuse, why for a decade I have played this song with the same 6/8 picking pattern of Everybody Hurts and not the actual 8/8 pattern the harpsichord plays. Has nothing to do with my inability to hear tempo (I have learned the correct pattern now.). As pretty as the song is with just guitar and voice (the way they play it live), I really like how on the album layer of layer is added, with drum machines, piano, effects and guitar coming in bit by bit, building a sound carpet.

  • I really like how Diminished is built around the melodic bass line, especially as there is a lack of them on this album. The harmonies in the chorus "sing along" give me goosebumps, in a different way, the opening line "I watched you fall, I think I pushed" does as well. However, I do not understand the random mention of genocide (smallpox blanket) in a song about a murder court case. Just Stipe things, I guess. The hidden song is a needed moment of just simple emotional sincerity on an album that is a bit overthought.

  • Parakeet and Falls to Climb are two songs where the concept of the album works very well.

  • Conclusion: Up is a gloomy November day with sudden rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds. They also had a new producer on the album, Pat McCarthy and I do not envy him, his first job with the band being to babysit the dramatic recording sessions. Additional to Up he oversaw the next two albums Reveal and Around the Sun. While Up (which wasn't well received when it came out) has gotten more (deserved) appreciation with time, Reveal and Around the Sun are considered the only bad REM albums. I only listened to Around the Sun once, a few weeks back and am not sure if I can make myself to go through it again, but I fully agree with Mike Mills, that Reveal is lovely, a perfect summer album and criminally underappreciated. I'm looking forward to listening to it on repeat the next week.

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