Who would have thought that drummer Bill Berry was the most essential member of R.E.M.?
When he was in the band, Berry seemed to fade into the background. He lacked the flamboyant presence of frontman Michael Stipe, wasn't an influential stylist like guitarist Peter Buck, and never seemed to have as much to do with the band's sound as bassist and pianist Mike Mills.
When he announced that he was tired of touring and quit the band last year, few imagined that his departure would make much difference in the band's sound.
Somehow, though, R.E.M. isn't the same without him. In fact, the difference is so dramatic that some listeners will be in for a shock when they slip "Up" (Warner Bros. 47112, arriving in stores today) into their CD players.
This is not your older brother's R.E.M. "Airport Man," which opens the album, does so with an abstract burble of electronics. A cheap drum machine hisses and clicks, while droning synths and moaning feedback flesh out the arrangement.
Stipe, meanwhile, weighs in with a lock-jawed murmur, muttering semi-decipherable phrases as if in fear of being overheard. Behind him, a piano dangles lean, echo-blurred arpeggios, as if in conscious imitation of Brian Eno's ambient classic, "Music for Airports."
Compared to the guitar-driven clangor that flavored the band's last couple of albums, "Airport Man" seems almost a willful effort to distance the band from its six-string past. That's not to say the band has sworn off strumming and gone electronic on us; listen closely, and you can hear Buck's guitar on virtually every track.
But the band is definitely going through a period of reinvention, and frankly, it couldn't have come at a better time. After 1996's "New Adventures in Hi-Fi," the alterna- rock blueprint that R.E.M. helped create began to seem tired, almost a relic from another age. R.E.M. may have had strong songs and charisma to spare, but sonically, it lacked the edge of acts like U2 or Beck.
"Up" solves that problem quite neatly. Instead of the jangly arpeggios Buck helped popularize, his guitar playing puts more emphasis on color and texture, using a feedback snarl to underpin the angst at the beginning of "Walk Unafraid," and slipping enough squalling distortion into "Day- sleeper" to curdle the milky blandness of the acoustic guitar and mandolin.
Nor is Buck the only one thinking orchestrally here. For "At My Most Beautiful," Mills' piano anchors a lush arrangement that seems torn from the pages of the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds," with Stipe's naked, understated vocal framed by sleighbells, bass harmonica and soaring, falsetto harmonies. "Parakeet," by contrast, comes on like an odd cross between '60s lounge music and '90s electronica, balancing vintage cheese (electric harpsichord, chirruping percussion) with hi-tech electronics. It's weird and a bit disoriented, but it works.
Then again, the same could be said for "Up" as a whole. Never mind that R.E.M. moves so far away from its signature sound that it ends up swiping ideas from others ("Hope" takes so much from Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" that Cohen gets co-writing credit). Borrowing liberally is part of the plan.
What matters is that the band sounds more vital and alive than it has since "Automatic for the People" -- another album in which the band didn't play the way the fans expected. "Up" may not be the R.E.M. album fans would have hoped for, and we should be glad it's not.
What: "Up" (Warner Bros. 47112), the new release by R.E.M.
Sun score: ***
Sundial: To hear excerpts from R.E.M.'s new release, "Up," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6124. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.
Pub Date: 10/27/98