Sunday, October 02, 2005

Up Rethought?

Noreen has long been telling me that Up (the first one after Bill Berry left the band to concentrate on his farming) is one of her favorite R.E.M. albums, and that it deserves a lot more credit than I've ever given it. My typical reaction has been to back slowly out of the room while nodding and smiling.

Truth is, I don't have a single song from Up on my iTunes. I have almost 13,000 songs on my iTunes, and not a single one from this album from one of my favorite bands of all time, even though I have the CD. I guess you might say that I haven't shown it much interest.

Along comes Stylus (via chromewaves) with not one, but two articles asking those like me -- and I'm not in the minority here -- to give Up another listen. The first, by Ian Mathers, is part of a Stylus series called "On Second Thought." As you might guess, the series takes albums which were initally dismissed and says "not so fast."

Mathers argues that Up only reveals its treasures slowly, but that it came at a time in the band's career where that type of patience was likely to be in short supply. It's core fan base was aging, and so didn't have the time to devote to repeated deep listenings (check). With the band pared to a trio, one collective eyebrow would already be raised in anticipation of a sub-par effort sans Berry (check, again).

Mathers compares Up to Kid A in that in both cases fans "seemed to mostly react with mild bafflement." The key difference being that Radiohead's fans were willing and able to give Kid A enough listens to ultimately understand it and love it, while R.E.M.'s fans showed no such willingness with Up. That may be true to some degree, but I'm quite sure that there were more than a few Radiohead fans who loved Kid A from the first listen (myself included). Yes, it wasn't OK Computer II, but who wanted that?

The problem for R.E.M. wasn't that Up wasn't Automatic For The People II, it was that seven years and two mediocre albums had intervened. I had spent some time listening to Monster before punting it. A couple of songs on New Adventures in Hi-Fi were decent, but the album as a whole was uninteresting.

So when the band reneged on their promises to hang it up when anyone of the original four left, and soldiered on to make Up, it was true enough that patience was in short supply. For Mathers, though, patience has additional rewards:
(There) are moments and songs that stack up next to anything I've heard from any area of R.E.M.'s discography, even if they sound nothing like Murmur or Green or Out Of Time or what have you. The shapeless Reveal and the leaden Around The Sun quickly proved that Up was a fluke, a happy accident, but that one-off nature hasn't prevented it from slowly assimilating more and more of my listening time. Sometimes the really good ones sneak themselves into your ears whether you want them to or not.
The second Stylus piece is a J. Edward Keyes article that "plays God" by shortening and resequencing the album, axing three songs and "shuffling the deck." The result is, according to Keyes, "a second chance, a shot at filtering out all the PR malarky and seeing Up for what it is: The last great R.E.M. record."

Well, maybe. I guess it might be worth reshuffling to Keyes' specs and giving it one more listen. Maybe I'll even see what Noreen's been talking about all these years.


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