Just Like Brian Wilson Did
R.E.M.'s Pure Pop Excursion Reveal

Douglas Adams died on Friday of a sudden heart attack. He was only 49 years old.

I wanted to say a couple of words about Adams because he was one of three writers (Stephen King and Stan Lee being the other two) who inspired a slightly overimaginative grade school kid to start stringing sentences together. Before I discovered Steinbeck, Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis or Alan Moore, I believed Douglas Adams was the best writer in the world.

That’s not to say he wrote children’s books. In fact, his central work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, gains more resonance for me as I age. While Adams was thought of primarily as a comedy writer, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide is certainly very funny, what Adams did best was to mirror the absurdity of modern life through a unique use of language. His only peer in this regard was Joseph Heller, and the similarities between the Hitchhiker’s Guide books and Catch-22 are many.

I started reading at an early age, and by fifth grade I was already somewhat bored with the books I was being given to read. Douglas Adams got me excited about the language again. His sentences were twisty, run-on affairs that had to be read twice to be fully understood. His characters and situations were original and deceptively thoughtful. Besides, if you can make a 12-year-old laugh on every page, you’ve pretty much got him hooked.

As I grew older, though, I began to really get Adams’ joke. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is an utterly ridiculous, often frustratingly clever read in which things that seem to have no rational explanation are later explained in maddeningly rational detail. Adams’ universe is strange and complex, and yet every event or circumstance has behind it a web of improbable, yet wholly explainable reasoning. The world, I’ve discovered, is actually like this. Everything is frustrating and absurd and ridiculous, but it all makes an odd sort of sense. Even the anticlimactic conclusion to the bleak final book, Mostly Harmless, seems, like the anticlimactic conclusions to all of our lives, inevitable and strangely beautiful.

Adams’ work doesn’t exactly lend itself to somber reflection on its author’s life, so I just want to say this. Mr. Adams, the 12-year-old me will be eternally grateful for your stories, and more often than you’d think, the 26-year-old me still enjoys them. Even though it’s no doubt been overused by now, I can think of no better send-off than the one you penned yourself.

So long, Mr. Adams, and thanks for all the fish.

* * * * *

Glory be, people actually voted. I got the most votes for R.E.M. (and Wally Fenderson didn‘t even vote…), so that’s what I’m going to talk about, but I want to add that this week in music made me very, very happy. The Weezer album is short, sharp and perfect pop, the Cowboy Junkies issued another wondrous slab of somnambulant melancholia, and Tool, well, Lateralus blew my fucking mind. They’re all worthy of your hard-earned cash.

If you look at the R.E.M. catalog as a whole, you can see the ebb and flow of their inspiration. The band definitely goes in cycles, letting their muse lead them to green pastures, even if they have to go through dung-strewn minefields to get there. Over a 20-year career, they’ve never sat still long enough to get sedentary. Pick any three R.E.M. albums at random and you’re guaranteed three totally different listening experiences.

I believe the band has only made three truly great albums: Murmur, Lifes Rich Pageant and Automatic for the People. Diehards could, no doubt, make a substantial case for the worthiness of all of their 13 studio albums, and I’d agree to a point. While R.E.M. has never made an album that’s not, in some way, worth owning (even Monster), the three I’ve mentioned are the only flawless works in their canon. Amazingly, they sound nothing alike, to the point that one unfamiliar with the band might not believe the same musicians produced all three. Such are the rewards of being a constantly growing artist.

I’m coming around to the idea that Reveal, the group’s 13th album, is their fourth truly great record. It’s shorter and more focused than Up, their first album without drummer Bill Berry, and the songwriting borders on the sublime in more than a few cases. It’s certainly the group’s best work since Automatic for the People in 1992.

And again, if you played this disc immediately after any of their three other great albums, you’d never think it was the same band. Reveal is big-sounding, covered in layers of texture and color that only occasionally threaten to drown out the songs themselves. The songs win out, though, because Reveal is the most tune-centric R.E.M. album to date. The melodies are sweet and satisfying, and Stipe’s tendency to lyrically roam all around his enormous consciousness has thankfully been reined in. I’ve been struggling with how to describe the sound of this album, and I’ve settled on this: it’s Brian Wilson in space. If Wilson had recorded Pet Sounds in 1983 from orbit, it might sound a bit like Reveal.

The sheer mass of sound is achieved largely without the use of electric guitars. Only sporadically does Peter Buck whip out the amplifiers, and then only to send songs like “She Just Wants to Be” into the stratosphere with a soaring lead line. Acoustic guitars, piano, synthesizers and giant string sections make up the rest of the sonic pattern, and for the most part, they sit quietly next to each other, playing nice. Buck called this album “lush” in interviews, and that might be a super-sized understatement.

The star of the show is Stipe’s voice, mixed high and clear throughout. The vocal melodies sparkle and shine, and nowhere here is there an incomplete, unsatisfying song. (R.E.M. has given us those in the past: “Hairshirt,” “The Wake-Up Bomb,” “Airportman,” etc.) “The Lifting,” which opens the record, twists and turns in lovely ways, the bridge section being my favorite. “Summer Turns to High” is glorious, as is “Disappear.” Note for note, these might be the best songs to come out of the band in 10 years.

(It’s ironic to note that just as Stipe’s vocals became clearer and his lyrics less oblique, the band began printing those lyrics on the sleeve. Guys, what we really need is a lyric sheet to Fables of the Reconstruction…)

It’s that excellent songwriting, though, that causes my biggest reservations about the production style. “Saturn Return,” for example, is a beautiful piano-vocal number, but it’s coated in bizarre sonic blips and swirls that almost obscure the heartbreaking clarity of the melody. The same can be said of “I’ll Take the Rain” and “I’ve Been High.” The latter is forced to support synths, strings, electronic drums and all kinds of little noises.

The production here makes Reveal one of those pure pop albums that’s instantly suspect. The consistent sunniness of the lyrics only adds to the impression that the band isn’t quite sincere. R.E.M. has never been a happy pop band (“Shiny Happy People” notwithstanding), and the frozen smile that faces outward at all times on Reveal feels like a lie. The preponderance of additional instruments makes sense if you’re trying to hide an inner sadness behind a sunny wall of sound. In many ways, that Brian Wilson analogy seems right on.

Suspicious intentions aside, though, Reveal is a great pop record, one that makes the last three transitional works worth it. This band has felt like a group of profoundly unhappy people for a long time now, with Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi opening wounds and Up salving them with melancholy. Reveal is a see-thru mask, a terrific exploration of one of pop music’s most confounding cliches – the tragic clown. There’s a lot of facepaint to wash off here, but Reveal hides itself so well that you can enjoy the show without digging deeper. If the members of R.E.M. were attempting to honor the spirit of Brian Wilson, they did it masterfully.

Next time, Tool. Uh-huh.

See you in line Tuesday morning.