I can hear you/Can you hear me?” Michael Stipe sang on the first R.E.M. album, and he’s probably spent a chunk of the past 15 years wishing he’d kept his pretty mouth shut. Few rock stars have been mind-read and decoded over the years like Stipe, the preternaturally wiggly boy-man who burst on the scene in 1983 with hair that made Frampton come alive and lips that needed kissing something fierce. Fifteen years of listening to Murmur don’t make the vocals any more comprehensible (“give me your cold butter”? “coward on a boat of renown question”? “heaven assumes shoulders high in the woods”?), but the voice always has the Jordache look you want to know better, and Stipe is stuck with it. No matter how much of himself he gives away, we always want more. When Stipe is on, he has a blast preying on our pathetic desires, as he did so brilliantly in the intimate growls of 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Which nobody bought–and maybe, just maybe, that explains why he spends R.E.M.’s new Up wishing we’d just leave him the fuck alone.
Up, named after Right Said Fred’s finest album, shies away from any big-whoop statements, sticking to dour and dry atmospherics. None of the songs mention R.E.M.’s recent backstage traumas: the departure of drummer Bill Berry after 18 years, the truly big-whoop commercial shortfall of New Adventures, Puffy’s MTV rendition of “Everybody Hurts.” But the doleful mood pervades, and even when the songs are really good they’re tough going. The musical premise is Another Green World, with plenty of analog synths and retro drum machines, and the boys are talking it up as a headphone record, a charmingly ridiculous conceit in the soundscape-glutted late ’90s–when there are way too many well-made headphone records for even the most patient ears to tell apart. Lots of the songs resemble low-budget indie synth diddlers like Dump and the Sea and Cake, or the drony keyboard bits on a Yo La Tengo album, except that R.E.M. don’t give up enough songcraft this time to bring anything new to the territory. So the instrumentation isn’t the formal coup the band probably didn’t bother hoping it would be–they just sound bored, bedraggled, confused.
The obvious explanation is that the guys miss having Bill around, especially since Bill could play rim shots around any of the session drummers who fill in here. But their reversals seem to have left them with a sour feeling about their audience–Stipe has written himself a batch of self-pitying lyrics about the rock star’s burden, and he bottoms out in “The Apologist,” where the chorus (“I’m sorry!”) quotes “So. Central Rain” from 1984, back in the kudzu days. (“We’re as sorry now as we ever were,” Stipe said after stringing the two together at a television taping at the Bowery Ballroom last Wednesday.) Those were different times all right, but R.E.M.’s originary moment continues to define them, and you can’t blame them for resenting it even as they court it. A few years ago my friend Mason visited the 40 Watt Club in Athens, where he saw a local band cover Reckoning all the way through, with Michael Stipe in the audience clapping politely after every song. More than any other rock band between the Sex Pistols and Nirvana, R.E.M. really did invent an audience in their own image, and unlike the Sex Pistols or Nirvana, they’ve had to grow up with it.
In truth, R.E.M. didn’t spend much time as a small-time cult band (MTV played the bejeezus out of “So. Central Rain”), but they kept the romance of a cult band long enough to build a whole new kind of rock’n’roll mythos–they were from a weird place nobody ever heard of, they got paid without wearing spandex, they covered the Velvets, you know the drill. An underrated part of the trick was that girls liked them, which wasn’t necessarily the case with Hüsker Dü or Big Black, and R.E.M. divided their gender caseload ingeniously: Stipe for the girls, Peter Buck for the boys. Stipe’s playfully spacey allure included poetic pretensions–“Radio Free Europe” remains one of the finest rock’n’roll songs ever written in iambic pentameter, along with Dylan’s “Abandoned Love” and Bowie’s “Space Oddity”–even when he wasn’t pronouncing words. For a while there, people really did wear white cotton shirts under black vests. What a time to be young.
The moment was too good to last, and R.E.M. floundered big-time with their Not Terribly Good Trilogy of 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, 1987’s Document, and 1988’s Green. They tried to evolve by rocking out, a big mistake for a technically limited band so at home in the soft-rock pocket, and clarifying the lyrics, a big mistake for a band with nothing to say. But they saved their tofu bacon on 1991’s Out of Time, the album where they figured out how to grow up, emoting live and direct in the smash “Losing My Religion” but also floating in style with gorgeously abstract folk-rock hymns like “Half a World Away,” “Country Feedback,” and “Near Wild Heaven.” Out of Time seems oddly forgotten today, much like the media-erased Gulf War that provided its cultural context, but R.E.M. had obviously found their postkudzu adult formula, and they didn’t blow it after that. Automatic for the People was their answer to the Clash’s Combat Rock (slow sad songs about movie stars, with a string section and a stupid title), while Monster was the glam-rock flash they’d probably heard in their heads back before Buck actually learned to play. Stipe looked great preening onstage at Bill Clinton’s first inaugural ball, joining Natalie Merchant for a duet on “To Sir With Love,” a prophetic choice to say the least. (“Please tell the committee, Miss Lewinsky–how do you thank someone for taking you from crayons to perfume?”)
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.
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.