Albums: REM

<preform>Reveal, </br>Warner Bros</preform>
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The Independent Culture

Though undeniably beautiful in parts, REM's first album as a trio, 1998's Up, was by their standards a commercial disappointment ­ though the reduction in sales was probably partly a reaction to the less-than-sparkling form of their previous two albums, Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. No such problems should hinder the progress of Reveal, an album whose depth, variety and subtlety recalls the album many regard as their greatest, Automatic for the People. There are no half-formed experiments nor slim ideas worked up at soundchecks here, just 12 highly wrought songs with intriguing lyrics (and a lyric sheet, unusually) and tunes whose beauty unfolds slowly over several listens, like flower-heads teased gently open by the sun's rays before bestowing their full glory on the world.

Musically, Reveal would seem to owe a sizeable debt to Brian Wilson, whose naïve/baroque presence haunts tracks such as "Beachball", "All I Want" and especially "Summer Turns to High", which could have been an out-take from Pet Sounds. The inquisitive piano parts and measured harmonies perhaps reflect the strength of Mike Mills's contribution to the current REM sound, while the best of Peter Buck's guitar parts are the psychedelic tendrils entwining "The Lifting" and the hook to "All the Way to Reno", which is virtually a mirror image of the old Crossroads theme. Elsewhere, the sonic experimentation of the previous two albums reaches an apogee of sorts in "Saturn Returns", which emerges from behind a screen of collaged electronic noise before developing a more rhapsodic manner.

Michael Stipe has rarely written or sung better than he does here, particularly his performance of "I've Been High", which is about as close as REM will ever get to composing a standard. His lyrics are full of life, literally, with blue jays and butterflies and dragonflies buzzing through them, and ripening fruit casting a heady, lingering aroma over tracks such as "Summer Turns to High" and the single "Imitation of Life".

The various references to flying ­ by insect, bird or aeroplane ­ lend a lightness to the album's atmosphere, bordering at times on drowsy fulfilment, while throughout the 12 tracks runs an understated tussle between nature and nurture, reflecting the album's overall thematic preoccupation with the nature and mystery of instinct. Which is only right and proper for a band getting back not only to form, but to their own true nature.