When all else fails, go with what you know. On their 12th studio album, R.E.M. shimmer with the same subdued intensity that won them fans 20 years ago. In the wake of a commercial flop--1998's Up--the Georgia trio have revisited their strength: brooding ballads and mellow instrumental flourishes. The result is a blend of lyrical storytelling, tech-synth experimentation, and classic minor melodies.
Reveal is a throwback to the band's earlier efforts. The album resembles their 1992 collection, Automatic for the People. Though Reveal lacks a stand-out radio smash like "Everybody Hurts," R.E.M.'s newest offering echoes with the subtle feel of Automatic's "Try Not to Breathe" and "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite."
The lead single, "Imitation of Life," misrepresents Reveal's deeper corridors. One of the album's only up-tempo cuts, "Imitation" is a poorly worded commentary on contemporary artifice. ("That's sugarcane / That tasted good / That's cinnamon / That's Hollywood") Simply, the radio-friendly
"I'll Take the Rain" marks Reveal's haunting acoustic highpoint. At once understated and yet sickeningly overproduced, the cut is hardly adventurous. Nonetheless, Michael Stipe croons at his lovelorn and beleaguered best, convincing in his vulnerability. An infectious and repetitive piano sequence powers the deliberate chorus, which concludes with the soaring titular promise.
Despite an early-R.E.M. sound, Reveal is no Murmur. The ethereal techno grooves that lace a majority of the album's tracks seem ripped from Madonna's transformational William Orbit collaboration, Ray of Light. The opening cut, "The Lifting," begins with a distorted synth sequence that's reminiscent of Moby's "Natural Blues."
However, club melodies don't dominate Reveal. Electric guitar riffs interrupt the fluid flow of techno backups, and R.E.M.'s time-tested alterna-pop sound overcomes--though at some points awkwardly--the electronic influence.
Continuing in the band's narrative tradition, Reveal demonstrates a successful mix of rhyming and free-verse poetic vignettes. From "All the Way to Reno," a tribute to a performer destined for stardom, to "She Just Wants to Be"--a vague message-driven ode to letting go of the past--Reveal is an intellectual journey. With subtlety and interspersed social commentary, the album is thought-provoking and occasionally inspired, despite some unimaginative missteps.
Like fellow '80s survivors U2, R.E.M. have attempted to rework their sound in the past. But both groups--U2 first with All That You Can't Leave Behind--now comfortably embrace their artistic origins, repaving paths they've already tread with creative twists and resurgent heart. Reveal is no groundbreaking opus, but the album issues a blow to commercial shape-shifting and marks another satisfying point in R.E.M.'s prolific music-making.