In a one day retrospect, I think my labelling of Reveal as backtracking is, on some level, misleading. Yes, in the wake of this album’s release R.E.M. would criticise Up in the press, and criticising your previous album tends to be one of the key steps of doing a U-Turn, but this record also does what – I hope I made almost too clear at this point – every R.E.M. has done before, which is to build upon and react to the previous album. This time they just more of an incentive to do so. So where Up was quite locked in and moody, the album cover full of cold colours, this album sets to be as warm and inviting as the meadow on its front cover.
It does all of this while still applying more of the synthesisers, more of the studio trickery and more of the Beach Boy pastiches that the band had picked up in the post-Berry environment. This album sticks to the essence of the previous more than any since Out of Time to Green. And in that respect Out of Time is this record’s closest companion, in that on the surface (and marketing) Reveal is the uplifting album that has grasped the new instrumentation and pushed it further into their traditional sound; electronica being to R.E.M. now as the mandolin was ten years ago. It’s also the move I would predict from a band whose last four albums have dealt with mortality, cynicism, exhaustion and grief, sometimes one of them and sometimes them all. On some level, don’t they deserve a bright relief?
Well, there are a number of things that complicate this reading. For one thing, like Out of Time, R.E.M understands that earned optimism has to come out of exploration out of the darkest elements of human culture, with some songs touching on that subject exactly. Also, whilst the first impressions of this album are “sunny”, the sound is trapped somewhere between the sunny sky and space. The lyrics make this pretty literal, with titles like “Saturn Return” and “Summer Returns to High” all dealing with the motif of flight. In fact, you could say that this is a way to touch on themes of height in a mirror to Up, but then you could also call it treading water.
And that is where I bring in the ultimate complicating element; Reveal just isn’t that great. It’s not terrible, and there is probably a Chronic Town-level great EP hiding in this fifty four minute record, but as it stands the tracks all begin to blend into each other, and not in a complimentary way either. This hypothetical EP wouldn’t even have to mean taking out many songs, just cutting some of the ones they have down; some of the greatest tunes and tones they have here are muted due to repetition. Not the repetition that would reveal new truths and ideas like in previous R.E.M records, but the kind that stagnates. If Up could have been seen as a transitional record, then Reveal is the record of them still being caught in the middle.
Despite that, there are a number of songs both singles and deep cuts that are successful for the tone they seem to be going for. But then I wonder about that tone. Every critic brings up Kid A gratuitously, but given its release coinciding with R.E.M’s studio time, Thom Yorke’s praise of Up, and Stipe’s close friendship with Yorke giving him incentive to write “How to Disappear Completely”, I think it is only fair to mention. Radiohead were clearly inspiring a band that once deliberately chose not to use synths, but their choice of sounds in synth and drums are not one that mesh together as well. But I think the closest comparison is, again, that other famous 80’s band’s record All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Reveal is like that album if instead of being very front-loaded it sprinkled the gems throughout.
Fortunately, as tends to be the case, the album starts off strong with “The Lifting.” It very quickly sets up this spacey, sunny aesthetic in the layered synthesisers, showing the sixties pop influence in the piano chords serving as the driving force and the ultimately psychedelic feeling of the whole piece. Stipe switches from omnipotent narrator to acquisitive friend throughout the song, this displacement working well with the displaced feeling the song is going for, and how the song starts off “grounded” before going into the air that is singing. After all the sorrow in Up, its as though this is the hesitance before the optimism of the journey ahead.
Ethereal sounds continue for “I’ve Been High”, which really leans on the drum machines and synths in a way that almost loses the sense that this was ever a straight up rock and roll band. But musically this is one of the tightest and most rounded on the album, with the electronics counteracted by light bells, and a main melody line that has both strength and a weightless feel. Lyric wise this is one of Stipe more “inspirational” inspirational songs, but there is still something about lines like “was I wrong?/I don’t know, don’t answer./ I just needed to believe” that still sounds timid and regretful. Stipe leans into these sentiments more than he has done on any R.E.M. to date – even more than Automatic for the People – and he’s covered this topic better in other places, but his vocal performance here is so delicate that you can buy that these are honest sentiment.
This trilogy of vaguely psychedelic, sixties pop and futurism ends with the definite “single” of the lot with “All the Way to Reno (You’re Going to Be a Star). A Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell tribute, this one has more of the band playing physical instruments, with Buck playing a guitar processed to sound like a sitar and…say is that a bass I can hear? Welcome back Mills, I thought you went missing. Still, despite that this is probably the most saccharine of the inspiration anthems R.E.M. has written, and I say this as someone who (somewhat) defended “Stand”. Stipe’s vocal performance is strong, but there is only so many times he can say “you know what you are?” before I go “a star! A blood star! I know already!”
To me, though, the song that most exemplifies the problems with Reveal is actually one of its best. “She Just Wants To Be” first catches you off guard by starting with only an acoustic guitar, Buck’s sparseness perfectly suited to the images of the world getting smaller that Stipe sings about in relation to his protagonist. Then the rest of the instruments kick in, with organs and a great guitar tone that is accompanied by one of the more evocative drum lines since Berry’s departure. With the added strings this would be one of the best compositions the band has done…if it was a minute and a half shorter. Instead, by the time the song end, you forget it is still going on. Someone should have told the band that the last verse was unnecessary (and not just because it is the most Chicken Soup for the Soul out of all of them).
Fortunately, “Disappeared” does not appear to have this same problem. It is also one of the darker arrangements on the album, with tremolo strings and clashing electronics introducing this song amidst all the usually loveliness. Title wise, this is like the second half of the conversation that took place with Thom Yorke that inspired the other aforementioned song, with lines like “I looked for you and everywhere/tell me why you’re here/I came to disappear” acting as either a response and answer for Stipe, or the “you and everywhere” acting as a revealing contradiction, as R.E.M. has been known to do.
But where “Disappeared” flirts with the darker electronics that were found on Up, “Saturn Returns”, the final song of Chorus Side, is the song that moves the closest to it (though with a warmer piano line still keeping it part of this album). Choruses like “Saturn is orbiting nothing /is off on its own /is breaking from home” seem to be conveying to sentiment of this Kubrick quote into a full song: “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent”. This is certainly something that gives the sweeter songs in the album a little bit more weight in their proximity. I don’t think having a whistle in the background was best advised, though.
The first song from Ring Side, “Beat a Drum”, follows on from the philosophy of the last song in terms of the indifference of the universe. “Butterfly wing/tropical storm across the ocean” is an obvious invoke of the butterfly effect, and “halfway from coal, halfway to diamond” equating the pressure of the earth with the pressure on the self. As for the music it is…fine. There are quiet bright pianos and guitars that build a good Beach Boys base work, but not as effective of a pastiche as “At My Most Beautiful” was on Up.
But as for the next song, when I heard it without looking at the title I said to myself “this sounds like the lead single”. And indeed it was, with “Imitation of Life” being almost quintessential R.E.M in terms of the jangling guitars and just the sheer energy of the thing. It is certainly apart of Reveal though, with spacey synths and sunny strings adding more to what is already a great composition. Lyrically this is like a better “Radio Song” and also its inverse, with him combining images of literal sweet things and “bread came sliced” to images of hurricanes and avalanches to show the unrealistic expectations that come from cynical positive Hollywood media. A great song, but it is also tunes like this that make you think “Where is this energy throughout the album?” Not that every song should have been this one, but, you know, similar energy.
Case in point: the next song, “Summer Turns to High”. Actually that’s not entirely fair, as this song is intentionally going for another airy, meditative vibe. It is another tune that owes a debt to the Beach Boys – though here more Carl than Brian Wilson – which also has some of the strangest drum programming on Reveal with them seeming to stop and start on whim. But unlike in other cases the spacey nature is to its detriment, making the piece feel more light and breezy and less engaging than it probably should. Because while the lyrics seem like they are trying their best to be as “summer” and as “high” as they can be, lines like “I won’t pine for what could have been/I’m preoccupied” do counteract this with the suggestion that this focus on Summer is in fact a distraction from more tragic matters. If this topic had been emphasised by either more cynical lyrics or a even more juxtaposed song, this could have been another great track. As it stands, it’s pretty good.
“The Chorus and The Ring” returns to a kind of country/folk sound that we would have expected from R.E.M. in Out of Time, combined with the feedback experiments the band has played with since Monster. In fact, the way the verse so emphasise the repetition of two chords it draws some parallels with “Let Me In”. It is odd that the song that makes up the names of Reveals two sides, thus lending it some kind of importance, is not given a very prominent position on the album. Instead it comes third to last, which makes the song feel more lightweight and incidental then perhaps it was meant to. Though if this was the finale it would have had a stranger tone then you would expect from the rest of the album, with the lyrics comparing humans to machinery in a way that both relates to the flight imagery, and that also works as one of the more abstract political songs in the band’s catalogue (or confused, depending on your predilections).
It’s also kind of good that “I’ll Take the Rain” is not the last song of Reveal, as its lyrical themes seem to go out of their way to move away from the album. There is the flight of birds here, but their also images of the rain and winter that combined with the acoustic guitar and quieter vocals sounds more internal than the rest of the album. The brightness is still there, though, in the guitars and organ, which perhaps makes the song operate on intentional contradictions, and also gives the even sunnier finale more of an impact. The song itself sounds really nice, but I think I could imagine that other famous 80’s band being given the same material, and making something much more emotional with it.
That really sunny finale is the appropriately named “Beach Ball”. It has smooth, jazzy horn section backing quiet guitars and electric piano, and the song has the feel of exiting the doors to the airport for the holiday ahead. The song is so quiet – particularly in Stipes voice – that I’m not entirely sure how sincere it is, but the closing lines “You’ll do fine” are the kind I have expected from the record as a whole, both in its charming timidity and in being an ultimately sweet gesture that doesn’t amount to huge things.
I would definitely call Reveal a nice album to listen and relax to, so in that respect it is a success. But it also confuses being bright with being lightweight in a way that I’ve never felt from the band before; maybe part of that is because the grounded bass of Mike Mills appears to be missing in the mix. It’s less of a disappointment than Monster was, and both of them falter in the same respect of focusing too much on singular topics. But I would also say that Monster had stronger songs and highpoints than Reveal. Still, there enough good songs on this album and fleshed out ideas for me not to call this bad. And, hey, with R.E.M. finally exorcising some of the dark demons of their last four records, the next album has to build upon this and be better. Right?…
What did you think, though?
R.E.M Album Rankings
- Automatic for the People
- Lifes Rich Pageant
- New Adventures in Hi-Fi
- Fables of the Reconstruction
- Out of Time
- Chronic Town (EP)
- Dead Letter Office