Just when you’d given up hope for the soul of rock music — assaulted by saccharine, mechanistic pop trifles and the boy band of the moment — a relatively few stalwarts (U2, Beck, Prince, Springsteen among them) are reinvigorating the genre, moving rock’s sound forward just by reinvesting in its original themes and truths.
The latest from R.E.M., “Reveal” (Warner Bros.), similarly pushes the envelope with a tuneful, poetic meditation on faith and personal connection. In a dozen new songs, the Athens, Ga.-based trio shows that it’s more creatively and emotionally self-assured than ever.
At times, it may seem there’s a listlessness, a calm that’s unnerving; the band’s past energy seems to have dissipated. But there’s more to “Reveal” than first meets the ear.
There’s less edge than before; the original incarnation of R.E.M. — founding drummer Bill Berry left in the late ’90s — was a band that relished a certain indecipherable edge (right down to the lyrics, which often couldn’t be understood at all).
Michael Stipe, the group’s voice and its emotional and spiritual weathervane, is not as enamored of irony as in the past. Continuing a pattern heard on recent albums, Stipe is writing tough, smart, straightforward lyrics with few feints and deceptions. The words cut to the heart of the human condition — that all of us are, as he puts it, “halfway from coal, halfway to diamond” — contending with the external forces and pressures that ultimately make us what we are.
‘Things you've never seen’
As much as anything, “Reveal” is a diary of people searching, looking for connection, fighting the temptation to live in the past, improvising the dances we do in and out of one another’s lives.
“The Lifting,” one of the two tracks most likely to succeed on the radio, seeks the jewel of the spirit hidden in the everyday, those moments when the insistence of the rational surrenders to the intuitive — “these things you’ve never seen, never dreamed.”
Some songs are nods to the past. To these ears, one of the record’s best cuts is “All the Way to Reno (you’re gonna be a star),” a song that celebrates change and self-discovery, those twin strands of the American DNA. You’ll hear the cowboy motif right off in this celebration of the Western hero living his own novel, the vagabond in a process that, for R.E.M., is its own revelation.
Peter Buck’s hallmark guitar animates “Imitation of Life,” the second radio-ready track and a jangly, spirited expression of the joys of memory. Some of the song’s lyric ingredients, “sugarcane,” “cinnamon” and “lemonade,” amount to stand-ins for a Proustian epiphany of sorts (they’re not madeleines, but they’ll do).
In “Summer Turns to High,” R.E.M. pays its respects to the Beach Boys’ trademark sound; and “Beachball,” a soulful, summery coda, ends a record whose overall flavor is more organic than in the recent past.
The band has mostly quit the electronic preoccupations that typified its 1996 offering, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” and 1998’s “Up.” On the new record, electronics are, properly, a spice rather than a main course. That restraint serves the music; the band’s folkish tendencies, its acoustic soul, come front and center.
On first listen (or even second), you might think that this is R.E.M. in easy-listening mode, a stark contrast to the sturm und drang of the band’s louder, more muscular music of the late ’80s (“Document” and “Green,” in particular). Some might even think they’re just phoning it in.
But the group has slyly upped the ante on rock music’s sense of itself: its dream aspect, its poetical possibilities, and its fundamentally American identity. The band that’s been rock’s most popular tabula rasa has been emerging from behind the curtain for years. Their latest effort is maybe their most evocative and nakedly emotional work since “Automatic for the People.”
After nearly 20 years — has it really been that long? — R.E.M. has mastered the art of music’s best long-distance runners, speaking of the power of memories and the future, in some of their finest worksongs.
Michael E. Ross is an editor-producer for MSNBC.com’s Living & Travel section. His writing has appeared in Salon, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times.