After expanding their other 1990s albums, R.E.M. reissued Up in November 2023. As well as the original 1998 studio album, described by band member Mike Mills as a “very radical departure“, the edition explored here also contains an R.E.M. live effort from 1999.
Starring the band’s three leading founders (Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, and the previously mentioned Mills), it also prominently features Joey Waronker. He took over on-tour drumming duties after founding member Bill Berry, timekeeper on every R.E.M. album before the 1998 song cycle, left the band.
Up opens with “Airportman”. It’s an unexpected choice as a first track – a “very strange” starter, according to Mills – but its uncompromising nature makes it somewhat praiseworthy. Exuding a sense of unsettling calm, it could be the background music from a dystopia disguised as paradise. The next song, “Lotus”, could be their poorest single, but it’s not terrible. It manages to be poppy but with dissonant alternative flavours.
Things improve once we arrive at track three, “Suspicion”. A contradictory but killer composition, its vibe could be labelled ‘jazzy chillout music tainted by tension’. Its lyrics, like those of the next song, stand up well. “Hope” features a grating riff that sounds like an old ringtone channelled through an organ or synthesiser. The five-minute track invokes vintage video game soundtracks, premillennial tension, and even a hint of dial-up modems’ phone-line interference.
“At My Most Beautiful” is a fitting title for the album’s fifth track. This quaint, enchanting snowglobe of a single can be compared to music by the Beach Boys (something not missed by the Independent). “The Apologist”, on the other hand, features sounds that are arguably more futuristic. It’s no wonder that one interviewer, writing for Guitar World about Mills and the band, described Buck’s way of playing the guitar as an “abstract style“.
“Sad Professor” is backed by music that’s almost as straightforward as it gets. The song’s lyrics are similar to literary fiction, which lets us in on the characters’ thoughts and emotions. The delivery of the lines cleverly enhances feelings of lethargy and frustration. Elsewhere, “You’re In The Air” is dominated by guitar, with its riffs finding the sweet spot: they’re neither too simple nor too complex. The song displays all the main ways guitar is used on Up.
“Walk Unafraid” is arguably the album’s most anthemic track. Rather than hard-to-understand poetry, the song uses accessible language to deliver its nonconformist message. Next comes “Why Not Smile”, which features elaborate backing music, but its guitar part is not as delicate as it should be, and the song is too long.
“Daysleeper” could fit on most R.E.M. albums. It turns the emotional and professional labours of a nightworker into a soft rock anthem. The drums help to shift dynamics, joining in only some of the time. “Diminished” mixes more not-quite-peaceful music with mostly anguished lyrical ruminations. “I’m Not Over You” (a hidden song ending track twelve) offers more difficult-to-grasp lyrics served over a plain but pleasant combination of guitar and vocals.
The lyrics of “Parakeet”, which include references to cats and dead birds, are strange new territory – even by this weird band’s standards. Despite this unorthodox subject matter, some of the song seems uplifting. The lyrics of “Falls To Climb” are more accessible and relatable yet still, at times, impenetrable. The band still manages to evoke a positive ending, however. These final two tracks on Up demonstrate a knack for big choruses, which helps save these songs from being crushed by their relative obscurity.
Many of this album’s gifts can’t be unwrapped quickly. According to the Independent’s survey of the album’s reception, “The San Antonio Express-News said it needed time to digest“. Mills says, “I think it rewards repeated listenings because there is a depth to it. It is not a surface record.”
Such “depth” is evident in the album’s nooks and crannies filled with complexity. While Up’s contrarian yet commercially successful architecture is still striking from a distance, it’s probable that only long, winding roads will lead to its finest treasures stored within.
Stipe describes the show that makes up the rest of this edition as a “warts-and-all rehearsal“. Its imperfections are seen in its first song, an arguably rough-and-unready version of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”. Other blemishes include an abortive attempt at “I’m Not Over You”. On “Losing My Religion”, Peter Buck briefly falters while playing the mandolin. Also, an intrusive initial offering on keyboards undermines the gorgeous “Daysleeper”.
Despite these missteps, there are several highlights among these live tracks. A relatively abrasive version of “Country Feedback” features impressive singing, as does the live favourite “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”. That 1980s song is, along with “Lotus” and “The Apologist”, among several tracks on this live recording that outshine their studio versions.
Another enlightening moment from the concert recording is how a song as excellent and well-loved as “Man On The Moon” can sound unambitious compared to most of Up. Realising this makes the gig more interesting, yet simultaneously exposes another of its shortcomings (even if the version of “Man On The Moon” found here may not be as good as the studio version).
Up is an excellent album. It demonstrates how to make genuinely alternative music that still has great appeal. However, the new reincarnations of the album have only a slight advantage over the original. There’s little of great merit here that wasn’t present on Up initially. The generally underwhelming concert makes the lack of other digital content worse. Some fans will rightly feel let down by this reissue of Up, but at least it’s bringing more attention to the core album.
R.E.M.’s Up (25th Anniversary Edition) album was released on November 10 via Craft Recordings. Listen to it below, and stream it everywhere else here.
Words by David Lownds