The exact point at which R.E.M. 'lost it' is a topic of hot debate. Some say that things started falling apart in 1994, when Monster was released; others might argue that it wasn't until Around the Sun, in 2004, that things went off the boil.
And then there's Up, which came out in 1998. Ask the average music fan which album burst the R.E.M. bubble, and this will be most people's prime suspect; with Bill Berry gone, Up was the first full-length release from the band's 'three-legged dog' incarnation, and they marked it with electronic experiments, chart-dodging miscellanea, and some of their most ponderous work yet.
I should point out at this juncture that, as a colossal R.E.M. fanboy, I don't feel that they ever really jumped the shark. So bear in mind that I'm not a completely unbiased critic here - heck, I even like Around the Sun! That said, I think a lot of people assume that Up is an inferior R.E.M. album just because it was made by a band diminished, and today I'm going to argue that it's actually one of the strongest moments in the group's catalogue.
First of all, I feel like Michael Stipe made some real strides on this album. His lyrics were less baffling than ever, with songs like Sad Professor and Daysleeper proving that he had a real knack for affecting character studies:
"Late afternoon, the house is hot. I started, I jumped off. Everybody hates a bore, everybody hates a drunk. Everybody hates a sad professor, I hate where I wound up. I hate where I wound up."
- Sad Professor
Who'd have thought that the man responsible for so much mumbly nonsense in the early '80s would go on to pen that?
Of course, few people criticise the lyrics when they criticise Up. The best lyrics in the world can disappoint when they're pinned to a limp and lifeless backing track.
But that's just it - they aren't!
Okay, so Sad Professor's fuzzed-up beauty isn't very representative of the album as a whole, but the electronic stuff is good too. Hope, for example, is a smashingly successful experiment, fusing Leonard Cohen's Suzanne to a skittering millennial soundscape and weird musings about what lies beyond:
And even Airportman, the song that R.E.M. fans frequently single out as the lowlight of their favourite band's discography, is a lovely moment if you just lie back and close your eyes. It's hardly the most invigorating of openers, but I've already explained why that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Most R.E.M. albums cleave to one particular 'sound': Automatic for the People was maudlin and orchestral, Monster was a scuzzy glam-rock record, Reveal was the splashy, sunny, summer album, and so forth. But Up is a real exception to that rule, with every song sounding different to the last. After Airportman, you're hit with the punchy, druggy powerpack that is Lotus, which almost has you believing that R.E.M. are back to business as usual when Suspicion sidles up in all its sexy, blissed-out lushness. Then comes Hope, the nervous energy of which will wake you right up if you slipped into slumber during Suspicion.
There's the ominous beauty of You're in the Air, the (ostensibly) Beach Boys-influenced At My Most Beautiful, the bells 'n' harpsichord combo found on Why Not Smile...it's a veritable smorgasbord of sounds. Yes, there are a couple of plodders towards the end, but the subdued pace helps Diminished (a song about a murder trial) to feel suitably tense, and Parakeet has a nice dreamy quality that makes it work, even if it is one of the album's weak links.
So yeah - for my money, Up is one of R.E.M.'s very best and it deserves your respect. They were trying new things, but the tunes were still there in spades, and the finished product is still an extremely enjoyable listen. A great album in which to lose yourself.