R.E.M.’s new Reveal (Warner Bros.) is like an emerging butterfly — out pops a beautiful creature from the cocoon of retrenchment that the band entered after drummer Bill Berry left in 1997. Of course, there was another album in 1998, but Up (Warner Bros.) was a look at the outside of that cocoon, twisting and churning as R.E.M. worked within to become a new animal.
Reveal, which arrives in stores Tuesday, proves that the reborn R.E.M. know how to use their wings. Its 12 songs brim with melodic riches, and the richest of all is Michael Stipe’s warm, full-blooded singing, which is seconded by the magic carpet of keyboard and guitar textures on which his voice rides. The addition of R.E.M. tour drummer Joey Waronker to the group’s recording line-up brushes aside memories of the mechanical awkwardness of Up’s programmed timekeeping. Ken Stringfellow and Scott McCaughey, who were also part of R.E.M.’s 1999 concert run, add density to the weave of six-strings and keys.
One thing Reveal seems to trumpet is that R.E.M. are unlikely to become a rock band again. At least not in the studio, which Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills turned into a sonic playground where they gathered to lay down the bare bones of each song and, to judge by the layers of keys, guitars, and loops in these tunes, spent days or weeks adding layers of musical flesh. There’s nothing like a driving rhythm electric-guitar line, a high-energy solo or a powerful riff, or even a drum beat that commands full attention on Reveal.
Of course, the same could be said for “Night Swimming” or “Everybody Hurts,” two of R.E.M.’s most substantial hits. Although none of these new songs is quite as powerful, the quietly sung “Summer Turns to High” and “I’ll Take the Rain” have the same clenched-fist passion. They are supremely human compositions, full of the kind of snapshot images that Stipe has become a wizard at creating over the band’s 20-year history. Dappled sunshine lends promise to dark places; birds take wing; phones sit silently as hoped-for calls never come. In “I’ll Take the Rain” these flashes add up to a story in which thwarted love becomes the acceptable and bittersweet alternative to none at all.
Rain, birds, dragonflies, airplanes, and other things that are borne in the sky or drift upward appear repeatedly, and not just in “The Lifting,” “I’ve Been High,” and “Summer Turns to High.” So Reveal is in a sense a concept album about spiritual uplift, the attempt to elevate one’s life or heart or soul through the graces of love or hope or joy or enlightenment. That’s spelled out in “I’ve Been High” when Stipe sings — with sweet, fragile longing clinging to each melismatic syllable — “What I want/What I really want/Is just to live my life on high.” It’s natural for R.E.M. to contemplate such things. When their friend Berry nearly ascended because of the brain aneurysm that compelled him to leave R.E.M., they were confronted with mortality in the raw. They’ve all hit 40, too, so Mills, Buck, and Stipe are in that early-midlife period when people typically take stock of their accomplishments, relationship, feelings, and desires. Questions emerge during this inventorying process that can shake the very foundations of self-perception; it’s a fertile time for songwriters.
In our electronica-aware age, the sheets of sounds that wave gently in the breezes of Reveal’s airy compositions have a contemporary framework. But the album seems as much the product of ’60s pop devotees as of post-Eno manipulators of the loops and computerized bells and whistles that are the currency of the studio savvy. Reveal opens in a swirl of vintage psychedelia, and later, ’60s watermarks like backwards guitar slither through the tracks. Although acoustic six-strings appear most frequently, a clutch of tunes indulge in the same Byrds-like guitar chime that distinguished early R.E.M. It’s most prominent in the wide strums that open and color “Imitation of Life,” the album’s closest thing to an outright rock song. “Beachball” flirts with a Latin beat in a way that echoes the bossa nova craze that swept session arrangers after “The Girl from Ipanema” was a hit in 1964, even as Stipe’s vocal layers recall the Lettermen or one-hit wonders Climax (“Precious and Few”). The Mamas & the Papas also get their due in Reveal’s lush harmonies. There’s even a chiseled guitar melody in the bridge of “I’ll Take the Rain” that will make ardent scholars flash back to the baritone-guitar mania that swept Nashville studios in the ’60s and colored hits like “Wichita Lineman.”
Only R.E.M. know whether these charming throwbacks are as intentional as they seem. The press bio — as press bios will — paints Reveal as a slice of modernity that at most alludes only to the group’s own past. More important, Mike Mills has gone on record as proclaiming Reveal a better album than Up, with “a warmer and more human dimension.” And that’s true as stone.