Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown #6: REM, Up

As those of you who’ve read previous entries in this series will know, I’m currently blogging about my favourite albums of all time, having been inspired by a recent TV show. Yesterday I revealed that my seventh-favourite was Eels’ Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. That can mean only one thing: that today I get to reveal to you my sixth-favourite album of all time, which is…

REM, Up.

Album cover

Album cover

Released in 1998, Up was REM’s eleventh studio album, and the first to be recorded following the departure of the band’s original drummer, Bill Berry. As I recall – most album reviews weren’t posted online in 1998, and the ones that appear now are reappraisals written with the benefit of hindsight – the album was not especially well received by critics. Most of them carefully listed all the ways it was unlike a typical REM record, and then identified those differences as failures, as if the band had been trying to recreate Automatic For The People. Despite this, it did well in the UK album charts, reaching number 2 (although in the context of REM’s sales, this was not a spectacular performance). Up is not an easy album to summarise: it has no overarching themes, although weariness and insomnia seem to lie in the background, and many of the lyrics feel like strange, dangerous fragments of dreams. The album works as a cohesive entity because all of these fragments share a mood, and a tone.

In writing about Blinking Lights yesterday, I depreciated biographical criticism but I think it’s difficult to understand this album without thinking a little but about the context in which it was created – specifically, the effects of Bill Berry’s departure, which are audible in the album in a number of ways.

At the level of the sonic palette (if you’ll excuse such a pretentious way of talking about the range of sounds used on the record), the decision not to recruit a full-time replacement for Berry means that many of the songs lack traditional percussion. On many of the tracks, the band make use of old-fashioned, poor quality drum machines (even broken ones, as on ‘The Apologist’), and the harshness and strict regimentation of those sounds is reflected in many of the album’s arrangements. With very occasional exceptions, such as the gorgeously lush ‘At My Most Beautiful’, this is a cold, hard record, seemingly worlds away from the warm acoustic of albums like Out of Time. We’re still a long way from the ‘machine music’ of a band like Kraftwerk, but the harsh unsubtlety of its sonic palette is one of the most striking – and un-REM-like – things about this album. (The harshness extends even to the sound of Michael Stipe’s voice, which on some songs is little more than a barely-tuneful – but powerfully evocative – croak.)

The effects of Berry’s departure are also felt, I think, in the lyrics. The experience seems to have shocked Stipe most of the way back to the intense inarticulacy of his earliest work – literally, in the case of opening (and utterly brilliant) track ‘Airportman’, which has a mumbled lead vocal of a type not heard since the band’s first album, Murmur. This record shows Stipe frequently choosing words for their sound and texture rather than their literal meaning, as he used to in their early years: hence near-nonsense phrases like ‘mean cats eat parakeets’, and pretty much the entire lyric to ‘Lotus’ (although in that case the reference to substance-induced incoherence is probably intentional).

This also makes interpretation of the record extremely difficult, if not impossible – and that, while frustrating, is also one of the album’s greatest strengths. Take ‘Parakeet’, for example. Musically, it’s a brooding, sinister song, and there are, I think, suggestions of domestic abuse (‘A broken wrist/ An accident/ You know that something’s wrong’), but it would be impossible to characterise the song as being ‘about’ domestic abuse. There’s a powerful but vague sense of a person inhabiting a dangerous, harmful environment, and some suggestion that they have escaped it by the close of the song (the mean cats can no longer climb trees, and ‘Buddahs tend to mending wrists’), but it’s impossible to be much more specific than that. The effect of this is that it forces the listener to invent their own explanations for the lyric – as in my suggestion of domestic abuse – which has two consequences. First, it makes the song seem much more personal and hence immediate, but, second, it makes the experience of listening to the album feel provisional and uncertain. At no point can the listener be sure if they are interpreting the songs correctly or if they’re projecting onto them, and thus missing the point. (Towards the end of the album, Stipe laments that too many people ‘miss this story’s point’.)

The cumulative effect of all of this is to create an overall sense of unease and discomfort – one that is contributed to by the harsh, jarring sound of the album – and a feeling of stumbling through a fog of semi-understanding. And then sometimes, out of that fog hard, unambiguous elements suddenly loom up, as in the repeated phrase ‘I hate where I wound up’ from ‘Sad Professor’ (a devastating, breathtaking song that’s almost impossible to describe in words: the song itself is its own best description). Or the repeated use of the word hope in the song of the same name that only draws attention to the feverish anxiety that is its real subject-matter.

You will have noticed that I struggle to write well about this album – its hard-to-pin-down quality is what defines it, but that quality is…well…hard to pin down. In place of a summary, then, I’ll just offer a recapitulation of some of the words I’ve used to describe it throughout this post. Lyrically, this album is: shifting, provisional, uncertain, uneasy, uncomfortable, inarticulate, feverish, anxious. Musically, it’s: harsh, sinister, cold, hard, distorted, brooding. There’s maybe not much in those lists of words that sounds appealing, and, truthfully, this isn’t the easiest album to listen to, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. Listened to in the right frame of mind, it transports you into a strange alternative world. And having once been transported into that world, you will find it lives on in your imagination, long after the album has stopped playing – that’s what makes it great.

So, that was my sixth-favourite album of all time – Up, by REM. Come back tomorrow to find out which is my fifth-favourite. It would be fair to say it’s something of a contrast in mood and style to numbers six and seven…

(Click here to read other entries in Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown.)

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