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 suggested—you 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, Document—whose title was as much an imperative as their 1983 debut album’s—validated what Murmur and 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 fool—a “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; Reveal is 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 it—especially 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 old New Romantics.
Like nearly any DM record, Exciter, their 14th album, mostly leaves one hungry for the inevitable remixes. Even the less moody, dreary songs, like the pitter-pattering single “Dream On,” cry out for embellishments—percolating basslines, thudding kick drums, interlocking riffs and countermelodies, gimmicky whip-cracks. You search the melody line for something Danny Tenaglia could rip out of context and make truly frightening. You look forward to Armand van Helden’s silly DJ tricks, or even a relentless pummeling from Peter Rauhofer à la 1997’s “It’s No Good”—anything to drown out the lyrics, stuff Siouxsie Sioux would have junked in 1983: “We are the dead of night/We’re in the zombie room!”
Producer Mark Bell, the zombie who made Björk’s Homogenic wonderfully lush if completely undanceable, adds a fourth egghead boy to the equation. However, what DM’s Anglo-Germanic gestalt really cries out for is an egghead black boy like Afrika Bambaataa to funktify them à la Kraftwerk. If Bell does more than program what he’s told, there’s little evidence. The only clues that DM are making an album in 2001 are Dave Gahan’s “ay-e-ay-yay” melismas, paying femmage to the Spice Girls on “Shine.” “Dead of Night” might be a goof on Fad Gadget, but who gives a toss besides Daniel Miller, E.C. Radcliffe, and Gareth Jones? DM doesn’t have the sense of mischief for parody. (“Fpimp,” their dead-on Philip Glass impression from Music for the Masses, is too much a tribute to count. In fact, it’s better than Philip Glass.) The stalled groove of Exciter‘s Donna Summer knockoff, “I Feel Loved,” has more in common with the “samba” setting on a Hammond organ than with Giorgio Moroder’s sleaze-beat.
Neither DM nor R.E.M. can pretend that Reveal or Exciter ranks with their best work, any more than people actually believe U2’s All You Can’t Leave Behind is a milestone. And it may say something for toiling in obscurity that Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard is doing his best work in his forties, with a mystery and purpose worthy of early Stipe. Nevertheless, it’s heartening to note that the Class of ’81-’82 has yet to age as gracelessly as Steve Tyler or Mick Jagger. R.E.M.’s a band you could grow old with, sweet and self-mocking enough to end their last tour on Sesame Street, singing “Furry Happy Monsters.” You probably won’t hear “Enjoy the Silence” in an Infiniti commercial. DM’s Andy Fletcher owns a low-key Italian restaurant in St. John’s Wood. Still, these middle-aged guys seem fatigued; they’ve survived drug abuse and alcoholism and invasive surgery, they’ve lost core members, and they hobble along like three-legged dogs. You can’t shallowly accuse them of greed or contractual obligation; the simple fact is that people need to keep working. And should. But maybe that means more soybean farming, stepping up the indie film production, or opening another restaurant. C’mon, Fletch. London’s up to here with electronica. What it needs is good food.