The only thing that would might have made this record more perfect was if it had been produced by Brians Eno or Wilson, instead of just stea–, er, repurposing — a lot of their ideas. Not that it would have happened, of course — their idea of a big-name producer was Don Gehman, who guided John Mellencamp to artistic respectability by adding big drums and seemingly meaningful words to the sound of R.E.M’s early records.
Meanwhile, benefiting from the formal disengagement of a drummer who hadn’t sounded interested in nearly a decade (Green, really, was the last time I noticed him — prior to that, he was good for two or three drum hooks per album, at least), and smart enough (as always) to seize a chance for reinvention, they took it. And naturally, as befits a band named after the dream state, they turned inwards.
The music on Up sounds fragile and claustrophobic, and feels as if it could be disturbed at any moment — as if after 18 years they finally figured out what a band called R.E.M. should sound like. And from the Enoesque “Hope” to the full-out Beach Boys pastiche of “At My Most Beautiful” (which should have been called “Nightsurfing” ) they give us a different example on almost every song. All culminating in the polar opposites of “Sad Professor” and “Walk Unafraid,” two songs that would have been major on Murmur. Of course, if they did it again, it would get old in a hurry: hopefully they will take a cue from the roughed-up versions of these songs that came out of their fall European tour and apply it to their next record.
. . .
Written for the 1998 Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll