By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
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Michael Stipe might actually have written "Wolves, Lower" about hiring entertainment lawyers. But in 1982, when that song appeared, R.E.M. fans would never have guessed that Stipe's concerns could be so practical. Voracious for meaning, future semiotics majors found their religion in a text Stipe was enigmatic and smart enough to embody. In concert during those cryptic early years, he was known to sing fans' interpretations in place of his "real" lyrics. The incomprehensible sound poems weren't the point, this suggestedyou were. Stipe, claiming that his muted utterances were sometimes critiques of foreign policy, gave voice to liberal inarticulateness in the Reagan era. And when he finally spoke up, he said what New South Democrats ought to have been saying: He growled at yuppies, criticized philanderers, and presaged doom. Automatically, the people elected him president of rock and roll.
Aside from a sound like America's subconscious, a haunted Southern twang tangled up in itself like kudzu, what R.E.M. always exploited best was intent. Stipe's impassioned vibrato was carried along by the single-minded "doomp-chad-doomp-doomp-chad!" of Bill Berry's drum kit like a bum in a boxcar. Mike Mills and Peter Buck fueled their creative fires by imagining themselves the wedding band at the marriage of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Patti Smith. Unlike fellow obfuscator Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, whose obscure lexicon mostly called attention to her instrument, Stipe preached in tongues to reilluminate the potential of speech-acts (like lead singing) to effect social change. "I can hear you! Can you hear me?" he shouted in "Sitting Still," yet another muted call to arms. The fans were idealistic enough to answer "yes" without first questioning the claim that a recording could hear them. R.E.M.'s 1987 breakthrough, Documentwhose title was as much an imperative as their 1983 debut album'svalidated what Murmurand its successors suggested. "Green Grow the Rushes" on Fables of the Reconstruction probably does critique policy in Latin America, if you deconstruct it heartily enough. For that matter, so does "You Oughta Know."
Nineteen years and 12 albums have passed since the beginning. Fat off an $80 million record deal, R.E.M. own a lot of property in their hometown of Athens, Georgia. Only Mills still lives there, though. Berry had an aneurysm in 1995 and quit the band after New Adventures in Hi-Fi. He became a soybean farmer and was replaced intermittently with Joey Waronker, the son of the former president of Warner Brothers Records. Stipe runs indie film company Single Cell, whose big left-field successes include Being John Malkovich. Once inspired by punks, R.E.M. have become an industry and have settled into a measure of bourgeois responsibility. So what is their sound without fury? Not, as one might think, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, but rather Reveal, a pastoral imparted by a wise foola "summer album," as Stipe calls it, with all the excuse for lightness the term implies.
It might well be called Relax. Mike Mills's and Peter Buck's acoustic midtempo strummings and electronic ambience match 1992's Automatic for the People for lethargy, without the looming darkness or catchy sentimentality that made it compelling. No one is working at cross-purposes here; Revealis a drowsy album about daydreams, a sleeping pill for the unconscious. It makes you wonder if R.E.M. have finally decided to live up to their name. Stipe switches his abstractions, no longer channeling intent but speaking for his own memory and powers of reflection. "You have watched on repeat/The story of your life across the ceiling," he warbles, perhaps having done so himself on a therapist's couch. "All the Way to Reno" serenades Stipe's youthful ambition. "Your Achilles' heel is the tendency to dream," he admonishes. "You didn't have to go so far." Stipe still uses obliquity as a crutch, casting doubt on how much he's actually revealing (look elsewhere for your bisexuality anthems, folks), and God forbid he should tell a story. But here and there he sets a scene that can't be mistaken for allegory, most startlingly on the lilting Beach Boys tribute "Summer Turns to High": "After wine and nectarines/The fireflies in turn/Move like syrup through evening/With the sweet rain." This sensuous haiku suggests that Stipe actually inhabits our same earth and, despite the long journey behind him, still has places to take us.
Depeche Mode, operating in a world parallel to R.E.M.'s, never let us out of their cell except to show us the world in their eyes. If Stipe doubted all along whether he could conquer the world with a fairly ordinary rock, Martin Gore set out to subdue humanity with a plastic cocktail sword. He made it happen because he takes himself as seriously as the suicidal teenagers in songs like "Blasphemous Rumours." DM's sustained success is hard to explain otherwise, in terms that don't involve kickbacks to the devil. Anyone who simply found a few Depeche singles danceable without joining the band's cult probably found them enjoyably campy in the true sense of the word, so far did their ambitions outstrip the plain fact of bouncy synths and tinny beatboxes. In contrast, the Eurythmics rose to the occasion, adding silly costumes, steel drums, and, when all else failed, Aretha Franklin. DM resisted soul, and though they also rejected the "New Romantic" label, they exemplified itespecially after Vince Clarke left, taking any joy or irony with him. Disturbingly, after 20 years and Nine Inch Nails, the label still fits. Except that they're oldNew Romantics.