R.E.M. pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch with the first single from their new album, Reveal. “Imitation of Life” sounds a lot like the band’s work on albums like Lifes Rich Pageant and Green, enhanced by the acoustic and orchestral effects the band mastered on Automatic For The People and “The Great Beyond” (from the Man On The Moon soundtrack). Some longtime fans of the band, perhaps a bit disappointed with 1998’s Up, listened to Peter Buck’s uptempo electric guitar and said, “Ah ha, old school R.E.M. is back.”
Well, as it turns out, not so much.
As good a song as it is, “Imitation of Life” is something of an anomaly on Reveal, which consists mainly of slower, sparser songs with a heavy amount of electronica, sampling and looping. Many of the songs sound more like they were assembled than performed. But while fans of the band may have once again had their hopes of seeing the band be what it used to be dashed, Reveal is another example of R.E.M.’s skill at the art of songcraft. Some of these tunes are forgettable or best left as background music, but some are among the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.
The opening track, “The Lifting,” is just outstanding. Michael Stipe’s lyrics conjure the possibilities of a break from worn-out routines and conventions and our reluctance to leave the safety that they provide. (The refrain: “You said the air was singing/It’s calling you you don’t believe/These things you’ve never seen never dreamed”) The electronic elements are crucial here; they give the song that otherworldliness that balances lines like “The weather’s fine/The sky is blue/It’s perfect for our seminar.”
The weight of missed opportunities and failed relationships haunts “I’ll Take the Rain,” an excellent ballad with some fine acoustic guitar work from Buck and what I believe to be Mike Mills’ usual excellence on the keyboards. The song alternates soft, understated verses with more expansive, lush choruses for an effect that is beautiful in a way that almost hurts to hear.
Those three highlights make the album more than worth your time, but the rest of the album will grow on you if you give it time, and if you listen to it as a whole. I’m not sure “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)” will stand up well as the next single, for example, but on the album it fits. If you absolutely hated the very idea of Up, you probably won’t like this album, but if you liked Up, or thought it was a good concept but poorly executed, I’m pretty sure you’ll find something on this album worth adding to your favorite song list.
- The Lifting (4:39)
- I’ve Been High (3:26)
- All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star) (4:45)
- She Just Wants to Be (5:22)
- Disappear (4:15)
- Saturn Return (4:55)
- Beat a Drum (4:21)
- Imitation of Life (3:57)
- Summer Turns to High (3:32)
- Chorus and the Ring (4:31)
- I’ll Take the Rain (5:51)
- Beachball (4:14)
Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 2001
Total running time: 53:46