After the uncertain times around Up, to the relief of many, R.E.M. elected to continue recording. Reveal would take until 2001 to appear; in the meantime the band scored music for Man on the Moon, a film about Andy Kaufman. The soundtrack included, naturally, their song Man On The Moon, which had first appeared on Automatic For The People in 1992, and a new track recorded for the soundtrack. The Great Beyond reached #3 in the UK singles chart, their highest chart placing there. It is - unlikely as it may sound for a non-album track, recorded after a near break-up, post break-up album of inconsistent quality - a quite brilliant song. One of the best the band ever wrote, it is effortlessly uplifting, and a perfect rejoinder to their critics.
But what of the next album - they couldn’t possibly keep that level up. Could they?
The answer to that has to be, at best hmm, tending towards not really. While Reveal sees R.E.M. back in the A-league when it comes to writing catchy off-beat indie-pop, with Imitation of Life in particular striking simultaneous blows for artifice, art, and pop, the album is not without its problems. The first of these is the easily forgotten songs that intersperse the brilliance. I’ve Been High is practically a new song every time, and Summer Turns To High doesn’t quite have the courage to carry out its Beach Boys fixation. Likewise, Chorus and the Rain and Saturn Return drift on by woozily, intangibly. There are undoubtedly highlights - opening track The Lifting, for one, is a lost R.E.M. gem - and the overall sound of the album is a bold development from Up. Where Up seemed keen to toy with new sounds, artificial sounds, while the songs themselves were pulled back by the ghost of R.E.M. past, Reveal works the other way round. The songs feel more or less new, while the sound is rooted in a mythical and analogue past of tape decks, swingball, exotic cocktails, and that perfect summer you remember from childhood.
Ultimately, though, Reveal is an album of dry summer heat: you could go out in it, but not stay out in it. When you’re out in it, you’re not going to get much done. The dust is gathering, the heat-haze stretches out before you. No one song on the album sums this up as well as Beachball, which might well speak of dancing in the street, but which would as soon have you doing nothing more than lounging in the pool, cocktail in one hand, umbrella in cocktail, squinting through the other hand to the sun. Sometimes summer is not the heaven it seems to be.