REM - Up
ONCE MICHAEL STIPE COULD sing like a man with a mouthful of ectoplasm and a head full of spells and people would take it on faith that it meant the world. Yet now, the beautiful ascetic with the stained-glass eyes is the consummate striped-trousered superstar, the maps and legends crushed under a pile of celebrity contacts. For eight years REM have been in that hollow place where the glare of fame withers the good, and, as 30 million album sales prove, it's no longer a matter of love, but of trust.
It's a matter of trust for the band as much as anyone. Without drummer Bill Berry for the first time, keen to show they don't exist in vacuum-packed isolation, REM's take on 'Up' is that it's just a bunch of guys playing together in a room. There's more than a little preposterous superstar posturing here, but maybe, when you've created whole musical solar systems, you just want to be the salt of the earth.
For all the promised adventuring, it's a strangely cautious record, Peter Buck oddly restrained, any sudden guitar flash sounding like he's surreptitiously crept up behind songs and wrestled them to the ground. It feels like an REM compendium, a virtual reality 'Best Of' picking and mixing their past, rifling 'Fables Of The Reconstruction''s intensity ('You're In The Air'), roughspun folk ('Daysleeper') and 'Document'-era guitar doom ('The Apologist'). From the opening two songs - the woozily suggestive percussive delights of 'Airportman' clashing with the ugly-rock yelp of 'Lotus' - prevarication is clear. It means a song as electrode-direct as 'Hope', a perfect Stipe lyric about death, alligators and allegory, but also a line as knowing as, "You think this isn't me/That's so sweet". Musically, 'Up' belongs to Mike Mills, but as always, the most devious figure is an unstoppable force.
For someone who buried all first-person pronouns for ten years, who veered straight from unknowable allusion to global confusion, Stipe has no reservations about shrinking the scale of this album down to skull, heart and groin. If this is sometimes faintly, improbably comical - 'You're In The Air' with its, "I want you naked/I want you wild" has the embarrassing recklessness of a bachelor uncle in the throes of a midlife epiphany - it's largely as beautiful and unexpected as flowers on the doorstep. "I count your eyelashes and secretly with every one whisper I love you", he swoons on the melting Brian Wilson confection of 'At My Most Beautiful', Mills reclaiming his role as Supreme Harmoniser, while the harpsichord sigh of 'Why Not Smile' is a whisky-warm hit of affection. Yet elsewhere love means self-loathing, recurrent falling, romantic martyrdom. 'Diminished' - 'Drive' too bleak to move from bed - is paranoid persecution fantasy. "How do I play this?", Stipe asks, unreliable witness to the last, "Jealous lover/Self-defence/ Protective brother/Chemical dependence?".
They play it bad, they play it sad, they play it again and again - hell, sometimes they even play just like a bunch of guys in a room. But after 18 years, REM can still play with divine fire. Trust them.