Home Read Classic Album Review: R.E.M. | Up

Classic Album Review: R.E.M. | Up

The indie-rock superstars lose direction on their first album without their drummer.

This came out in 1998 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


It’s the end of R.E.M. as we know it … and things don’t seem fine.

When drummer Bill Berry retired from the alt-rock supergroup after suffering a brain aneurysm onstage during their last ill-fated tour, the rest of the band — singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills — had three choices if they wanted to carry on: 1) Hire a new stickman; 2) Buy a drum machine; 3) Go without.

Naturally, since they’re R.E.M., they decide to do them all. The appropriately mixed result is Up, an unfocused and inconsistent disc which finds the band experimenting with various styles, arrangements and instrumentation — with varying degrees of success — while trying to fill Berry’s estimable shoes.

The few songs where they’ve simply replaced him are the ones that will please the fans. Drummer Joey Waronker fits right in, giving the old-style rock tracks like Lotus a slinky, Beckish groove (no surprise, since he’s Beck‘s drummer).

More musically interesting, however, are the handful of numbers incorporating robotic, click-clack drum machines. On these electronica-tinged outings — the eerie Muzak of Airportman or the noisy, demo-tape intimacy of Hope — the band succeed in taking their music to a new place where we aren’t constantly reminded of Berry’s absence.

Sadly, they don’t do that often enough. For most of Up, the gents have replaced drums (not to mention Buck’s guitar) with vibes, piano and percussion flourishes. And while that gives these keyboard-dominated mid-tempo ballads a bit of Pet Sounds’ orchestral majesty, it also means most of the songs — especially the less linear, chorus-free entries — blur into a mess of delicate strumming and keyboard arpeggios.

Despite the title, Up is something of a directionless album — and a disc that proves how important a good drummer is to a band.