When Bill Berry left R.E.M. last year, did he take their drum kits with him? “Up,” which finds the band back up and running for the first time since Berry became the first original member to leave, has a spooked, fragile stillness to it. The songs are built around humming, gently throbbing electronic keyboards; the whomping drumbeats that Berry contributed are mostly gone, replaced by the tick-tocking of lo-fi machines. Peter Buck’s guitars don’t ripple; instead, they dart in and out of the songs like sound effects.
Once Berry left, we knew R.E.M. would never be the same, and they knew we knew it. “Up” is the sound of the band trying to reshape its sound and vision. Their solution is to focus on mid-tempo, or often no-tempo, hymns and ballads. The shift suits them. The arty poses notwithstanding, there’s always been something soft and squishy at the heart of R.E.M., and that facet of the group blossoms in wafting cyber-café torch songs like “You’re in the Air” and “Suspicion.” With its wistful keyboards and Stipe’s admission of romantic turmoil, “Falls to Climb” feels like an emotional confession during a church service. “Walk Unafraid,” his ode to nonconformity, is also pretty grand, blending clanky noise with their old uplift. All told, “Up” is the most cohesive R.E.M. album since 1992’s Automatic for the People; it recalls that album’s flowing-river tranquility.
What’s inspiring about “Up” is how it pushes the band’s limited vocabulary without sounding as desperate as, say, “Pop,” by fellow elders U2. R.E.M. wander into the electronica age — in a low-tech way befitting 40ish men — on the doorbell-chime twinkle of “Airport Man” and the techno-air-conditioner pump of “Hope.” “Hope” also reveals the evolution of Stipe’s lyrics. What a contradiction he remains: The odder he looks and behaves, the more direct and passionate his lyrics have become. When he sings “I read bad poetry into your machine/I save your messages just to hear your voice” in “At My Most Beautiful,” he compensates for the track’s unimaginative Brian Wilson-style vocal and musical arrangement.
Kissing the past goodbye isn’t easy; you’re still longing for that last embrace. Hence “Daysleeper,” the first single, which feels like an Automatic outtake, albeit with metaphors about the global economy. What’s harder to explain — especially on an album that maps out a new route for the band — is “Up”‘s elegiac tone. R.E.M. put on a brave face in the wake of Berry’s departure (and questions about their relevance in 1998), but Up is revealing in ways they may not have intended: It enters the future, but with a heavy heart.