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May 18, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Peter Buck’s recent arrest for ”criminal damage” of airline crockery notwithstanding, R.E.M. have aged as gracefully as possible for a rock band. Together 20 years now, they’ve spent the last 10 mostly refining the elegiac chamber pop patented on their 1991 megastar coming-out party, ”Losing My Religion.” But time marches: Drummer Bill Berry retired after 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and 1998’s Up found the brotherhood down and a bit rudderless, futzing with drum machines while still penning the occasional gorgeous tune.

Reveal is billed as the band’s return to form, and mostly it is. Up‘s electro-pop gestures are worked more seamlessly into the familiar folk-rock fabric, rich with pianos and chiming guitars and spun-sugar melodies. The first single, ”Imitation of Life,” is classic latter-day R.E.M. — soaring strings, aching empathy, ambivalent allusions to fame. It’s not as rousing a single as ”The Great Beyond,” written for the soundtrack to 1999’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon (and unfortunately excluded here), but it’s close. So is ”I’ll Take the Rain,” a pedal-steel-edged lament that deserves to stand beside Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ”Who’ll Stop the Rain” and Travis’ ”Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” in the Weather Song Hall of Fame.

But like Up, much of Reveal is haunted by an ennui that’s curious for a band that made their name by talking about the passion. With bassist Mike Mills mostly shunning vocals, lead voice Michael Stipe drifts alone through flashes of art-rock guitar and aurora borealis synths, singing songs about beaming up (”Disappear”) or flying away (”The Lifting”) that always seem set in the wee small hours of the morning. It’s a kinder, gentler version of the ghost-in-the-machine vibe that Radiohead’s Thom Yorke — a stylistic child of Stipe — has cornered the market on, and it’s beautiful as far as it goes. One can imagine the band making records like this, sweet and sad, graceful and marginal, for years to come. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen. B

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Reveal

R.E.M.

WARNER BROS.

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