Imitation of Life - A "Reveal"ing look at a band on the decline.

R.E.M.'s twelfth studio album, Reveal, is a formulaic, banal adventure in low-fi that, while a refreshing break from the usual radio tripe, is playing it safe in a very comfortable, non-threatening sandbox. That R.E.M. created the very formula to which they now prescribe is a testament to their greatness - that Reveal is so R.E.M. - Revealuncompromisingly dull is a testament to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and all of the rock giants who had the decency to check out before they embarrassed themselves by living out the December of their artistic life regurgitating their greatest hits, only with different titles, and possibly in a different key.

Am I being overly harsh? Let me tell you, true believers, it pains me to lay all of this out for you like this. R.E.M. is my favourite band, but listening to Reveal makes me ill, and a little sad.

Perhaps I am being harsh. Reveal isn't a bad album - but it's a disappointment. I'm not an oldster who laments the R.E.M. of old, before they "cashed-in" and had huge hits. I don't begrudge them their multi-million dollar contract with Warner Bros. For the record, their New Adventures in Hi-Fi is my favourite album of all time, displacing their Automatic for the People from that position in my own internal chart. I even liked Monster, when fans and critics abandoned their foray into harder rock (although, being R.E.M., it wasn't exactly a head-banger). Their previous effort, Up, the first album that they made without drummer Bill Berry, was a little flat, a little off, but was a new direction for the band. Reveal is a rehash of the mediocrity they established with Up, only a tad cheerier, and without the novelty of being the first album of the "new" R.E.M.

R.E.M. is my favourite band, but listening to Reveal makes me ill... Reveal is actually somewhat pleasant. I can imagine playing it in the background while doing some work (as I'm doing now) and having it not be at all distracting. Do youwant a track by track run-down? That'll unfortunately mean that I have to listen to the album again, but of course you know that I always suffer for you.

The album opens with some interesting synth work that shows promise, but by the middle of "The Lifting" my hopes already started sinking. It's actually one of the better openers to an R.E.M. album in recent history, but it stays on the same level that it started, never going anywhere. The first track is emblematic of the whole album - it's a journey without a destination.

The second track, "I've Been High," is another snooze-fest, lacking any change in dynamics (or any discernible melody - besides the now-usual "talk-sing" drone that singer Stipe seems to have developed in recent years).

I was heartened that the third track, "Reno," sounded a lot like the first track from Hi-Fi (as I affectionately abbreviate my favourite album), "How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us" but with a loungier vibe. Unfortunately, like the sketch writers at Saturday Night Live, they don't know when the song should end, and "Reno" goes on for a minute or two too long. Pity. "She Just Wants" has lifeless verses that actually outshine the even deader and more repetitive chorus.

I actually rather like the fifth track, "Disappear." It sounds like something that you might find on their highly superiour debut, Murmur. Of course, if I want to hear songs that sound like Murmur I'll just listen to Murmur. The next track "Saturn Returns" is also a welcome change - sung in "Tongue" falsetto, the verses pull against the sparse piano and ambient guitar noise via the barely audible Peter Buck. Mike Mills shines like a happy person on this entire album, showing that the bassist is a genius at keyboard layering and arrangement. Still, R.E.M. have never been known for their instrumental virtuosity, but rather their song-writing, and even Mills's flashes of brilliance on Reveal don't make up for the general flatness of the compositions. Maybe it's time for a Mike Mills solo album.

Michael Stipe is what he is. He's at his most Stipe-iness here. His lyrics have actually been improving with each album, even if his singing has remained as pubescently angsty as always. "All I Want" is the follow-up to Up's "At My Most Beautiful," although without the gorgeous arrangement and freshness of the latter. R.E.M. have listed Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys as an inspiration, but we'd do best to skip the imitators and go straight for the source. Thwack Pet Sounds onto your turntable (I know people don't really use turntables anymore, but it's hard to "thwack" something into a CD player) and kick back for a more enjoyable listening experience.

The first single, "Imitation of Life," is the bastard step-child to their previous single, "The Great Beyond," a song that the band recorded for the Man on the Moon soundtrack (which incidentally was better than anything on Up, and a good omen of things to come, even if our expectations have been let down by Reveal). "Imitation" is the only upbeat song on the album, and would be a listenable filler-track on other R.E.M. albums. On Reveal, it's a highlight.

"Summer Turns to High" is another Wilson-fest. "Chorus & the Ring" is another tune-less dirge whose only contribution to the album is to offer guilt-free skippage, thus shortening the album's playing time by four and a half minutes. "I'll Take the Rain" is another jangly melody-less dirge. The closing track, "Beachball" starts off promisingly enough, but the Herb Alpert style horns are just fancy windowdressing for another dirgefest. It's not a bad album. It's just bland.

When Bill Berry left the band (as well as producer Scott Litt, who may have been a more creative force behind the band's Warner Bros. years than I realised), the band ceased to be the R.E.M. of old and became something else. That's fine by me. I'm glad that they didn't simply crank out more Out of Times after their unlikely hit "Losing My Religion" propelled them from college-rock obscurity to stadium stardom. But are they now going to release Up over and over again? Reveal reveals that the answer is yes. Let's hope that the next three remaining albums on their contract don't make daysleepers of us all.

Don't believe me? Buy a copy from and hear for yourself. Or better yet, buy a copy of New Adventures in Hi-Fi and treat yourself to an R.E.M. with a pulse.

Reveal hits the streets Tuesday, 15 May 2001.