(Part 3 in a series in honor of R.E.M.; here's part 1 and part 2.)
Up - Thanks to generally bad reviews (and to Monster, still), I don't have this one. And it sounds like I made the right choice. R.E.M. could write a whole album's worth of decent mid-tempo ballads in their sleep. But Bill Berry's understandable bowing-out crippled these guys. Still, they trudged on. And what do you do when you lack a drummer? You make ballads, of course! Well, it sounds like the post-Berry incarnation struggled at it. I will say that the few downloads I've made - the pensive "At My Most Beautiful" and the ethereal and pleasant "Daysleeper" - were not wastes of money. These are truly pretty, pretty songs. But the negative rumblings from around will probably keep me from purchasing Up as a whole.
Reveal - And the next album I never got, even though I did download some songs from it. Experimentation, pop-heavy and luscious. But it sounds like it wasn't entirely successful. These three guys faithfully channel the Beach Boys on "Beat a Drum" and "Beachball," both great songs. "Imitation of Life" hearkens back to Out of Time in its production and Fables of the Reconstruction in that the first four chords are an exact replica of "Driver 8." Apparently, Peter Buck didn't realize until a fan pointed it out to him; this might imply why the song doesn't stick after a few listens. I dunno. You'll have to look elsewhere for incisive critique on this album.
Around the Sun - The worst that things ever got. While I was in a Virgin Megastore lo these years ago, I listened to about 30 seconds of each of these songs, and stuck around "The Outsiders" long enough to hear Q-Tip do a terribly awkward and slow rap. And I was done. It sounded competent. It sounded tasteful. It sounded textureless. It sounded like Muzak. And it was awful...well, actually, it was worse than awful. It was mediocre. Do I need to say I never got this album either?
Accelerate - These guys needed to clear the air, and they knew it. They knew their career depended on it. So they went to work. And good goddamn, talk about your phoenician rebirth. An album ago, R.E.M. was content to merely exist in a corner, polite and unobtrusive. Now, they demand to be heard. Back are the buzzsaw guitars, the stadium-ready noise, the agitprop, and loads of great, great music. Michael Stipe yowls "wow!" on each of the first three songs - the best opening trio since at least Automatic for the People - and ends the whole album with a triumphant "yeaaah!" The whole album bristles with energy; even the one-and-a-half ballads are restless and uneasy, demanding and hoping for personal and political change. Far and away, this is R.E.M.'s best balls-to-the-wall rock album (Monster could only dream of being like this), and possibly their best latter-day album. Well, with the possible exception of...
Collapse Into Now - Their swan song. R.E.M. touches on all of the musical territory they've established since leaving I.R.S. Records - and does it masterfully, beautifully, with elegance, and perhaps just a bit of dust on the proceedings. The hard rock of Monster and Accelerate, the meandering, urgent buzz of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the balladry of Automatic for the People, Up and Around the Sun, and the ethereal pop beauty of Out of Time and Reveal all have their moments here. (Heck, they even bring in Stipe's muse Patti Smith on his stream of consciousness ode "Blue.") And like many other R.E.M. albums, this one may not be easy to get into, but it slowly grows on you until it's warm as a comforter. Apparently, after the disaster of Around the Sun, these guys wanted to prove that they still could put out good music. With the last two albums, done and done.
Thanks, guys. It's been a great time.