Hey Andy, Did You Hear About This One?

R.E.M.
'The Great Beyond'
Warner Bros.

Soundtrack commissions have a way of stiffening the resolve of otherwise hit-resistant rock stars. Perhaps because they're cognizant of the high visibility and even higher stakes associated with big-time Hollywood productions, as well as the ka-ching factor that has turned movie tie-in albums into perennial best-sellers, artists on studio payrolls seem to be working harder these days to make music that might last beyond the average shelf life of a multiplex roller-coaster ride.

Witness R.E.M., a band that has lately suppressed their commercial instincts in exchange for artsy, ambient pop that has shrunk the band's market share and left them struggling to stay significant. It took an assignment to write the score for Milos Foreman's Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon,to bring out the same fight in the threesome that they used to have as a foursome. Of course, R.E.M. has trod down Andy's road before, having written the tender elegy to the late comic that supplied to title to Forman's film. That 1992 song is on the soundtrack album, as is "The Great Beyond," a gorgeous cosmic giggle that finds the band giving a nod and a wink to radio for the first time since 1994's Monster. It starts off like something from last year's benumbed Up, all synth washes and gently pulsing sine waves. Then Michael Stipe, channeling Kaufman, sends a message down from the stratosphere—"I'm pushing an elephant up the stairs / I'm tossing out punch lines that were never there"—as Peter Buck and Co. send the song into interstellar overdrive with the catchiest chorus the band has recorded since, er, "Man on the Moon." The song's complex, strings-laden arrangement nestles up against you without smothering the melody, and no doubt the band's loyalists will welcome a song they can sing along to in their Jettas. R.E.M. may have spent the better part of the decade on the downshift, but there's no shame in pandering to the VH1 crowd when your pandering means writing songs as yummy as this.

 
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