Sunday, February 20, 2011

reveal: ten years gone

[My older reviews and interviews which are no longer available online need a home, so why not here? This review appeared in the online magazine Toast not long after Reveal came out in 2001; Rob Sheffield's contextual line in his Rolling Stone review of Collapse Into Now about "their underrated 2001 gem, Reveal" inspired me to repost this today as a rejoinder to that spit-take-worthy opinion.]

You know, I had developed this whole theory about Up, the first R.E.M. album that required me to employ rationalization. I told myself, “They were still figuring out how to go forward without Bill Berry. Warner Brothers wanted to see some return on that record-breaking megabucks deal they signed just before New Adventures in Hi-Fi, so they pressured the band to give them some product. R.E.M. gave them the best fourteen tunes they had at the time, even though thirteen of them were midtempo lopes or dying death dirges that, taken as a whole, would challenge the most keen attention span. They didn’t have time to put together an album with more variety and a sense of pacing. They’ll get it right next time.”

Well, Reveal blows that theory all to hell. Two and a half years after Up, they’ve basically done a more streamlined version of Up. This time, they kept my interest through the first six songs (with Up, it only took four songs before I was snoozing or anticipating how soon the CD changer would get to Beck’s Mutations), they made better use of auxiliary players Ken Stringfellow and Scott McCaughey (who also shone on R.E.M.’s 1999 tour), Stipe’s lyrics seem moderately happier, and it’s thankfully several minutes shorter.

Other than that, it’s another exercise in stacking one meticulously-arranged midtempo song on top of another meticulously-arranged midtempo song. The overall effect is numbing; no matter how meticulously arranged these songs may be, after hearing three or five or eleven sauntering tunes in a row, they start to run together. If surrounded by songs that offered even a hint of lively contrast, Reveal’s best numbers might shine through like “Perfect Circle” and “Country Feedback” did on better-balanced albums. But instead, marvelous moments like the dark jewel of “Saturn Return” and Pete Buck’s guitar solo at the end of “She Just Wants To Be” fade into the elegiac torpor that has apparently become R.E.M.’s signature feel.

I wish I could blame Reveal on the unfortunate late-‘90s revival, at least in “alt” circles, of arranging and craft substituting for edge and energy. To me, a song or two of Bacharach/David lounge fare or Pet Sounds orchestration is plenty, but whole albums of them get on my last nerve. 

Nevertheless, in the end, I can’t pin Reveal on Elliott Smith, the High Llamas, Stephin Merritt, Stereolab, or Richard Davies. If Buck/Mills/Stipe want to settle into a turn-of-the-20th-century adult contemporary act, it’s their business, I suppose, but it’s also their fault. Somebody wake me up when the Nirvana and Wire revival hits, O.K.?