If ever an album needed a bit of revisionist loving, it’s Up. Coming after the departure of Bill Berry, to some it was the first post-R.E.M. album, to others it felt like a long time since Automatic For The People, and the weak sales (comparatively speaking) of New Adventures in Hi-Fi hinted at future decline. Certainly in the US, the band’s time had largely passed, while UK music fans were still hanging on in there.
As a record of a band, even three-quarters of a band, trying to relearn how to make music together, it’s an interesting moment in time. But, yeah, who wants to spend that much time listening to historical documents? As an album, fortunately, it holds together relatively well, despite - possibly because of - the tensions at its heart.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi had been, for all its variation, an album of repetition, of lengthy songs each perhaps representing a different moment spent drifting or in stasis. Up is an album of tension, perhaps a new and uncertain band dynamic revealing itself in the music: much of it is straining to head off in any number of directions. At first the differences are confined to separate songs - Airportman, an unearthly electronica and the most un-R.E.M. song to date, is followed by Lotus, a funky groove of defiance. After that the album moves into songs that don’t seem sure whether they want to tread softly, or, as in the title of one track Walk Unafraid.
If there’s a real problem in the album its the lack of center. Airportman and Why Not Smile are remarkable slow-burners, but neither has the shoulders to support a whole album. Daysleeper is evocative, but plays like Drive without the big guitar cascade, or Try Not To Breathe without the soft poignancy; it also suffers from sounding like an attempt to hold on to the R.E.M. of old. Largely, it succeeds in this aim, but it’s not really indicative of the rest of Up.
Where Up excels, is in moments of opening up, when a melody, or a hint or fragment of one, sometimes a memory of old, is revealed: the way Suspicion segues out of its middle eight back into its main melody in a way that makes it sound just for a moment like something new; the way the strings magic themselves into the middle of You’re in the Air; the ebb and flow of The Apologist, and its So Sorry refrain, calling back to So Central Rain; the chorus of Sad Professor that harks back to Let Me In.
Fine moments, but what R.E.M. needed to do, to save themselves, to keep going, was to look forward: with Up they were nearly broken from looking back. They just about held it together, but already it was clear it would take a little longer to get used to not having Bill Berry in the band.