Friday, October 24, 2008

REMtrospective: Up

Posted By on Fri, Oct 24, 2008 at 9:08 PM

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Title: Up

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 can’t read the lyrics “He moves efficiently / Beyond security / Great opportunity awaits” in quite the same way that they were originally written. Plus, the song’s 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, we’re sorry Bill’s gone. But we’ve got this great software…”

“Airportman” is such a departure (no pun intended) from REM’s 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 band’s 2000 album, Kid A.

Because of the electronic effects, Up feels more modern, urban, plugged-in and “citified” than most of the band’s 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. It’s 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 album’s most musically idiosyncratic track, and I honestly don’t know what instruments are involved – it could be the melodic arrangement of ringtones and adding machine sound effects. It’s like what robots would use as a church organ. The band credits Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne” for similarities in lyrics and melodic patterns. I’m 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 it’s Up’s 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 Up’s tracks have a dreamy, ethereal quality that grows on me, like the trancelike “Suspicion” and especially “Falls to Climb,” which is one of the band’s 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. (REM’s 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 REM’s 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,” “You’re in the Air” and “Diminished”). I wouldn’t say any of them are terrible – they’ve 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 doesn’t 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 band’s remaining members had rocked unfraid, too.

Here’s the video for “Daysleeper:”

Click here for Automatic for the People.

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