38 Special

The gold rush ended with New Adventures, and as a fan of the album I'm not the one to explain why--perhaps Stipe's most direct love songs ever, soon after his first public interviews about his bisexuality, didn't catch on because after grunge there was no audience left for rock'n'roll love songs, at least not from boys. But the love songs are the only moments on Up that stick. Two of the three keepers are overt '60s homages: "Suspicion," a Bacharach mélange of piano and strings, and "At My Most Beautiful," a Pet Sounds parody with an actual Brian-worthy ballad under all the smiles, vibes, and harmony. Stipe sings tenderly about counting his lover's eyelashes while (he? she? you think he's giving that away?) sleeps, but it's a sly backhander--to him, you're "at your most beautiful" when you shut up and go to sleep. My favorite, "Why Not Smile," is an R.E.M. homage, as the synthesizers impersonate acoustic guitars and harpsichords and castanets for a few minutes of bubblewrapped folk beauty. Other songs drift by pleasantly enough ("Diminished," "Parakeet"), still others are rough on the stomach ("Lotus," "Walk Unafraid," "Sad Professor"), and by the time the album's over you're wondering why they bothered and goddamning their confusion.

They invented an audience in their own image--and unlike the Sex Pistols or Nirvana, they've had to grow up with it.
Anton Corbijn
They invented an audience in their own image--and unlike the Sex Pistols or Nirvana, they've had to grow up with it.

Details

R.E.M.
Up
Warner Bros.

Up could be just Michael Stipe turning 38, an age with a strange jinx for rockers caught between youthful inspiration and grizzled wisdom. The age 38 has given us such landmarks of the dire as Dylan's Slow Train Coming, Reed's Growing Up in Public, Bowie's "Dancing in the Streets," Madonna's "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," and Young's Everybody's Rockin'. It can't be just dissipation, since all these artists moved on to later glories. (Hey, you can give me Bowie, can't you? How about if I give you Van Morrison, who celebrated birthday #38 with a shout-out to L. Ron Hubbard?) Since R.E.M. have bounced back before from a far more harrowing pit of not-terribly-goodness, Up sounds like a temporary down, and an understandable one. Like Puffy says, everybody hurts sometimes.

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