R.E.M.‘s new single, “Imitation of Life,” is the biggest hit you won’t hear on the radio this summer. The track is reminiscent of the band’s commercial peak in the early ‘90s, with a sing-along chorus, neon keyboards, and a melodic structure similar to songs on 1992’s Automatic for the People. Unfortunately, the track might not be enough to revive a band that, after 20 years, has managed to sink itself back into relative obscurity.
After Out of Time, their mainstream breakthrough, and the sorely underrated Monster, R.E.M. released the brilliant yet largely ignored New Adventures in Hi-Fi and the lethargic Up, an album that rarely rocked enough to induce humming. But the band’s new album, Reveal, is laden with the kinds of songs you’ll want to sing along to upon first listen. Many of the tracks find Michael Stipe displaying what seems to be a renewed sense of melody. Tracks like the fervent “She Just Wants to Be” give the band a fully fleshed-out sound for the first time in years.
Like Up, considered a commercial disappointment, Reveal is drizzled with electronica-lite, only this time the effects are less abstract. The gorgeous and solemn “I’ve Been High” features lone guitar chords injected with a flurry of cybernetic bleeps, with Stipe singing “I’ve forgotten how this feels” as if he’s just recently recalled the magic of songwriting. “The Lifting” is intensely meditative, its introspection set to a subtle electronic backdrop: “You have watched, on repeat/The story of your life/Across the ceiling.”
Elsewhere, however, Stipe’s lyrics fail to rise above mediocrity. “I’ll Take the Rain” uses its title, for example, as a metaphor for being a door mat in a dysfunctional relationship. And like Up, Reveal generally plods along languidly. “Saturn Return” features a Björkian symphony of drum machines and electronic minimalism, but the track is ultimately anti-climactic, bubbling its way up the side of the pot yet never coming to a boil. Songs like the Beatles-esque “Summer Turns to High,” which is chock-full of childhood nostalgia, reveal an album that is, despite electronic elements, more vintage than anything else.