Up is REM's first album since Bill Berry, their drummer, downed sticks, and there has been much theorisation about how his leaving freed up the remaining trio to reinvent themselves. This is a red herring. REM have always reinvented themselves, from record to record. It's true that the new album is a marked departure from the guitar-based New Adventures in Hi-Fi: the orchestration is so luxuriously idiosyncratic that the band members can no longer tell which instruments are on each song. But Up is also a summary of their incarnations over the past 10 years. There are echoes of Green ("You're In the Air"), Out of Time ("Diminished"), Automatic For the People ("Suspicion") and Monster ("Lotus").
Up could have been shorter, but it's still one of REM's most satisfying albums. I hesitate to call it their best, only because their previous ones have been so wonderful. It's undoubtedly their best album for lyrics, though, and they've included a transcript for the first time, to spotlight the humanity which Michael Stipe brings to the characters he plays, whether it's the murder-trial defendant of "Diminished" - "Is the jury wavering? Do they know I sing?" - or the man in love in "At My Most Beautiful": "I read bad poetry into your machine / I save your messages just to hear your voice." Henceforth, no compilation tape made by students for their girlfriends will be complete without this song.
Another of America's most creative rock artists is back this week: Beck. And if that link is as feeble as I suspect, let me add that Beck's drummer, the intriguingly named Joey Waronker, is also filling in for Bill Berry in REM. Anyway, Odelay was one of the albums of 1996, and its follow- up bears a crushing burden of expectation. Beck's cunning plan is to declare that Mutations (Geffen) isn't a follow-up at all, but a "parenthetical" work. There are some Beckian production twists - "Diamond Bullocks" has a sudden five-second break for tropical chirrups - but there are no collages of samples and hip-hop beats. Beck has instead dressed his lolloping, sideways songs in the rural psychedelia of early Pink Floyd and in the musical evocations of paddle- steamers and Wild West saloons that were The Band's speciality. It would be a shame if Mutations slipped through the cracks, because it's a real joy (albeit, quite a gloomy one). The man is a poet and and an icon. With one eye on American folk history and one eye on the far future, Beck is truly the only one of the many New Dylans over the years who really deserves the title.
But enough of these obscure, independent releases and onto the big fish. 1995's Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette has now sold 28 million copies and prompted almost as many imitations. It is The Official Biggest Selling Debut Album Ever (If You Don't Count The Two Disco Albums She Made When She Was a Teenager). Not everyone likes it, though. A sizeable contingent of Alanisceptics has her down as a shrill brat who uses the recording studio as a therapist's couch and doesn't know the meaning of "ironic". They're right about "ironic", but I'd maintain that, at her best, Morissette is one of the most exciting songwriters of the decade. On Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (Warner), she is not at her best. Starting with the CD's photo of her lying naked in a foetal scrunch - so she's, like, exposing her inner child, and if she happens to titillate the voyeurs out there, that's, like, totally unintentional - this album could be an Alanis Morissette parody.
It's easy to spot some stadium-rock hit singles, but several tracks aren't songs at all, they're lists, with Morissette shrieking the same sentence constructions over and over again. "Thank U" (cool spelling, Alanis!) has 12 how 'bouts and 21 thank yous. The gloating "Are You Still Mad?" asks the titular question 15 times. "Sympathetic Character" has 23 I was afraids. "Can't Not" begins 18 lines with because. Morissette's only aim seems to have been to stuff in as many words as possible - and to hell with rhymes and scansion and the need for great racking gasps for breath between lines. (She plays a flute solo on "That I Would Be Good". You can tell it's her from the gasps.) And she will insist on emphasising the wrong syllables. "I have comPENsaTED for my days of powerLESSness" is one of her more pronounced bits of mispronunciation.
Her lyrics are often clever, and they're amazingly frank, but personal songs don't work if the songwriter doesn't seem like a person you'd want to spend time with. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is one of the most conceited albums I've heard, so dizzy with self-adoration that even an intended paean to her mother soon veers back to more familiar subject- matter: "Did you see yourself in my gypsy garage sale ways? / In my fits of laughter? / In my tinkerbell tendencies?" Anyone who has ever been hurt will find something they can relate to on Jagged Little Pill. Anyone who has ever been a multi-millionaire, psychobabbling 24-year-old former teen-star will find something they can relate to on Self-Infatuation Junkie.
So Robbie Williams should like it. Following the sleeper success of Life Thru a Lens (Chrysalis), he's back with I've Been Expecting You (where would late Nineties pop be without James Bond?) It consists of calculating, middle-of-the-road Britrock and borrowings from Oasis's Beatle borrowings. It's also packed with catchy pop tunes, cleaver-sharp lyrics and meaty arrangements, and is so massively better than most pop albums that to complain about it would be ungracious. But then, Robbie Williams is an ungracious performer.
He's the Chris Evans of pop. We loved him when he was the cheeky but sussed underdog, zipping exhilaratingly past his competitors. But once he'd established himself, he became a cocky, preening bully, harping on about old scores from a position of power. On "Karma Killer", the triumphalist shouts of "Look what you didn't take from me!" make Gary Barlow's jolly self-deprecation seem positively noble.