Another accomplishment by massively accomplished band
Whenever Michael Stipe encountered writer’s block during the gestation of ‘Reveal’, he got on a plane. Somewhere on the way, the search for the next phrase must have become a search for himself. [I]”I spend half my life figuring what comes next”[/I], he laments in the heat-hazy ‘Disappear’. For the world’s most enigmatic rock star, that must be quite a job.
As the band’s 12th studio album, ‘Reveal’ offers REM the latitude to make a bold statement, test the boundaries, make us question how well we really know them. Instead, they’ve chosen the opposite. Just as 1998’s ‘Up’ suggested that drummer Bill Berry’s absence would result in careful minimalism, ‘Reveal’ is REM remembering who they are, and reaffirming why they do what they do. Nothing fancy. Just a perfect circle, drawn freehand.
All the defining REM characteristics are in place. The effortless grasp of melody, the vertiginous emotion, the comforting appreciation of beauty and the preservation of sanity in a world which hurts and confuses at every turn. The characters that populate the songs are all questing – a travelling businessman soul-searches in woozily spectral opener ‘The Lifting’, a failed entertainer travels to Nevada in the jangly ‘All The Way To Reno’, a drifting woman realises [I]”now is greater than the whole of the past” [/I]in ‘She Just Wants To Be’. Like Stipe, they are taking a look around, evaluating, and switching on the optimism.
Much has been made of ‘Reveal”s similarities to 1992’s ‘Automatic For the People’ (there are traces of ‘Try Not To Breathe’ in ‘Disappear’, ‘Nightswimming’ in ‘Beat A Drum’), but it’s actually much closer to ‘Up’.
The emphasis is on minutiae and subtlety over grand gestures. Peter Buck’s promises of futurism aren’t readily apparent, but there is an underpinning modernism. The entire album is buoyed along with a resonant swirl of strings and fizzy synth – ‘Saturn Return’, especially, squelches and whirrs like frayed electric wires writhing in an empty road. This lightness of touch means that ‘Reveal’ is initially underwhelming, but in time gracefully rewarding.
‘Reveal’ is the slippers, fire and photo album – but this doesn’t mean REM have resigned themselves to the placid lethargy of age. It just means that they’ve
found a place to sit back and take stock after a long, colourful journey. Like Dorothy observes at the end of the yellow brick road – if you can’t find what you’re looking for in your own backyard, maybe you never lost it in the first place.