"But," you say, "I don't even care about R.E.M. anymore." Fair enough. And if you ever did, it probably wasn't because critics suggested it. They tried, of course. Your father's -- or at least your older brother's -- Rolling Stone preferred the band's 1983 debut, Murmur, to Michael Jackson's Thriller in its annual poll that year (don't laugh -- it was a big deal). But R.E.M. didn't move significant amounts of product until its freak accident Top 10 hit, "The One I Love," in 1987; its subsequent commercial peak often relied on singles representative of the band's worst impulses (the unfortunately irrepressible "Stand"; the imitation-rock "What's the Frequency Kenneth"). But even the good ("Everybody Hurts") and great ("Losing My Religion" and "Man on the Moon") songs of the band's 1991-1993 reign gained currency not from the press, who once cherished R.E.M. as a noble secret, but from an audience built on years of live performances and a few insistent videos.
R.E.M. is a critic's darling that -- deliberately or not, but despite its early dogma (NO lip-synching in videos, NO arena shows) -- went home with the popular boy instead of the geeks who brought it. It has been years, but the geeks are still looking for payback. Nothing incurs wrath like a critic scorned by a success story, even a success story firmly ensconced in denouement.
First come the revisionists, whippersnappers such as Seth Stevenson, who last month earned the permanent enmity of whatever Venn diagram can be drawn to show the overlap of R.E.M.'s audience and Slate.com's. "R.E.M. should, by all rights, blow," Stevenson says in his May 8 review of Reveal on the Web site. To eventually posit that Reveal is "boring," Stevenson attempts to be provocative by calling singer Michael Stipe's voice "perhaps the worst in rock radio -- paper-thin and whiny like a teenage girl" but referring to the band members as magicians who staved off their collective "mediocrity" until Reveal. He says there's no coming back because "reinvention's hard when you're pushing forty." The trouble with Stevenson's thesis is that he confuses invention with the attempt to reinvent.
Matt LeMay's review on pitchforkmedia.com (no affiliation with the Pitch or with Friends) is kinder but no less shallow. LeMay is interested in R.E.M. as comfort food. When he chokes on "Imitation of Life" ("terrible lyrics," he complains), he sighs relief that, for all of Reveal's flaws, "the good news is that R.E.M. are still R.E.M." Phew!
Stevenson and LeMay crave not just artistic consistency but also continuity. Less than a year ago, U2 generated sales and praise by ditching synthetic irony to renew its anthemic bombast with an album and accompanying rhetoric that behaved as though that was the only thing the band had ever done right. All That You Can't Leave Behind might have been called Oops! I Did It Again, except that its retreat was calculated. R.E.M. dug back only as far as its last album for inspiration, a move only someone who wants sequels could damn.
It's not that R.E.M., a trio since drummer Bill Berry retired to his farm in 1998, doesn't court a sound. In fact, its albums follow a pattern of experimentation within a deceptively tight outline: The musicians aim for a sound on one album, ace it on the next. Murmur interrupted its thick pudding of bass chords and twelve-string arpeggios to include the gorgeous tack-piano ballad "Perfect Circle" at the halfway mark. With "So. Central Rain," Reckoning perfected the jangly sound the band would come to define despite its mostly abandoning it immediately afterward. The next two albums, Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant, stumbled, respectively, through darker textures and slamming percussion in ways that now sound quaint -- and more like classics for it. Document and Green, though, were born big, a band rightfully declaring its maturity. Out of Time and Automatic for the People announced a sweeping antirock agenda, the first a hit-and-miss pastoral with a mandolin-drenched number-one single, the second an autumnal, largely acoustic wake. It was only with 1994's Monster and 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi that the facade showed stress. The band almost splintered trying fruitlessly to make a dirty rock record, then suffered serious physical stress on the road while writing slightly better songs; between the two releases, one confused, loud, pretty album can be compiled.
Then came Up in 1998, which proved that Bill Berry was probably the last holdout for rock and roll among the band members. Bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck switched instruments and gave full voice to their Pet Sounds obsessions. The arrangements were dense, the beats often programmed, the songs carried with pianos, vibes, organs, minimal guitar -- and Stipe's despondent voice. An enigmatic, melodic work that stands alongside -- or betters -- the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin and Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs, Up succeeded because its ambition was scaled to Flaming Lips' size rather than U2's.
This recapitulation of R.E.M.'s two-decade career is worth the space because people seem to have forgotten two things in their race to declare victory or defeat for the band: One, nobody except U2 makes records expressly for the sake of conquest. Two, just because the market is now designed to support an act for only one or two albums doesn't mean that every group must be judged as though its current release is a mission statement. R.E.M. established its purpose a long time ago, but purpose isn't enough; it's still crafting a body of work.
So if it's too early to say that Reveal will play better in twelve years than 1989's Green does now, it's plain that most of its songs are as drunk with melodic intent as the best of R.E.M.'s albums. After Monster and Hi-Fi's double-barreled booty call, it's refreshing that, as on Up, the eroticism comes from the music itself, not Stipe's plaints. If a grudging comparison is to be made, Reveal recalls Out of Time; now, though, longing has settled into mature romance.
James Hannaham of the Village Voice comes closest to understanding Reveal as a continuation of Up and a likely end to that chapter in R.E.M.'s discography. "Reveal is a drowsy album about daydreams, a sleeping pill for the unconscious," he says, concluding correctly that there's nothing wrong with either. "You can't accuse them of greed or contractual obligation; the simple fact is that people need to keep working. And should." That work won't always be indisputably great, though it could be again. But the listener's part of the contract isn't to be wowed every time but to be fascinated. And R.E.M.'s work, pretty or pretty good, remains uniquely fascinating.