Released on: Oct. 26, 1998
Favorite track: Hope
If the first track on an album sets the scene or makes a declaration of principles, what is Airportman, the introductory album of Up, trying to say? Some of my favorite REM songs start off their respective albums with considerable bangs, like Radio Free Europe, Begin the Begin, Finest Worksong and Radio Song.
Airportman, by contrast, is an odd, muted, haunting little ditty, almost inaudibly sung-whispered by Michael Stipe. It has 14 lines, most of which have only a few words. The haiku-like lyrics evoke a jet-lagged traveler who seems to be trying to register corporate/transportation slogans like The people mover. After September 11, one cant read the lyrics He moves efficiently / Beyond security / Great opportunity awaits in quite the same way that they were originally written. Plus, the songs emphasis on the drum machine and electronic music almost sounds like a subconscious rebuke to former drummer Bill Berry, as if the remaining members are saying, Sure, were sorry Bills gone. But weve got this great software
Airportman is such a departure (no pun intended) from REMs previous approach that it colored my memories of Up. I remembered Up using the electronic music more often and overtly than it actually does. I could definitely hear the influence of Radiohead, especially OK Computer, when I bought it. Apparently the bands had been hanging out, and Radiohead also had a much subtler influence on New Adventures in Hi-Fi. According to Wikipedia, Ending a ten year relationship with co-producer Scott Litt, R.E.M. engaged the production assistance of Pat McCarthy, who was assisted on most tracks of Up by engineer Nigel Godrich, Radiohead's producer. And later, Radiohead would cite Up as an influence on the bands 2000 album, Kid A.
Because of the electronic effects, Up feels more modern, urban, plugged-in and citified than most of the bands previous albums. The lyrics seem to follow-suit. Revisiting Up, I thought of White Noise author Don DeLillo and the consumerist, media-saturated lost souls of his fiction. The narrator of Daysleeper, an office drudge on the night shift, sounds very much like a DeLillo kind of character, in a kind of corporate prison and exiled from the rest of humanity. Its also an oddly catchy tune a ballad for the white-collar rat-racer with unexpectedly soaring passions.
While REM traffics in inscrutable lyrics, subject to multiple interpretations, many of the songs of Up seem emotionally disconnected, as if the characters have been severed from their own feelings, DeLillo-style: Hope, Airportman, and the snaky, funky Lotus strike me as three of them. Hope is probably the albums most musically idiosyncratic track, and I honestly dont know what instruments are involved it could be the melodic arrangement of ringtones and adding machine sound effects. Its like what robots would use as a church organ. The band credits Leonard Cohens song Suzanne for similarities in lyrics and melodic patterns. Im not sure who the you is the song addresses, but it could be a mental patient or someone otherwise caught up in the health care system. I love the way it fosters a feeling of hope against hope, as it were, and enjoy puzzling over the references to alligators and the like (You want to cross your DNA with something reptile.) I think its Ups best addition to the REM songbook.
Sometimes the electronic music cultivates a dehumanizing quality, but other times it goes in the opposite direction to serve some sunny musical ideas. Several of Ups tracks have a dreamy, ethereal quality that grows on me, like the trancelike Suspicion and especially Falls to Climb, which is one of the bands most effectively hymn-like songs. The way At My Most Beautiful and Why Not Smile celebrate smiling make me wonder if The Beach Boys Brian Wilson influenced Up as well. (REMs Reveal sounds even more beachy.) Weirdly enough, two songs (At My Most Beautiful and Parakeet, I think) use what sound like *sleigh-bells.* Really, REM?
At 64:30 minutes, Up is REMs second-longest album after New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but unlike its predecessor, Up actually feels too long. I honestly think that people would remember Up more fondly if it were shorter by, say, three songs (taken from, say, The Apologist, Sad Professor, Youre in the Air and Diminished). I wouldnt say any of them are terrible theyve all got one interesting riff or musical idea, but most of them have just one. Collectively they make a mellow, leisurely album draggy and languid.
The pressing question is, did Berry take the rave-ups with him when he left? Hope seems to be the fastest song on the album, but doesnt quite qualify as hard-rocker. Walk Unafraid rocks closest to the way one expects from REM, and has a dark, insistent quality similar to their early 1980s work. Listening to Up. I wished the bands remaining members had rocked unfraid, too.
Heres the video for Daysleeper:
Click here for Automatic for the People.
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