After R.E.M.'s somewhat ambitious 1996 album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, failed to ignite Billboard's
Hot 100, you might have figured the band would return to the rock-solid bombast of Monster or the
consumer-friendly pop of Green. But R.E.M. have enough cash not to worry about commercial failure, and
they've already been to the top of the mountain, so for now they'd rather explore its lush valleys and
secret caves. Up is an atmospheric journey as impressionistic as Enya and as evocative as John Barry.
Some critics have compared it with the band's delicate and emotionally revealing gem Automatic for the
People, but Up is more ambitious and creative. Sure, most of the songs are pastoral, but they're
undercut with drama and sonic experimentation. The melodies are generally spare, the beats sparse.
Guitars flicker in and out, providing tension and dynamics, while quivering strings, layered keyboards,
and washes of feedback color the songs like textured lines of paint in an oil portrait. The only
blatant pop song is the single "Daysleeper." The rest of the album ebbs and flows, each song a separate
component of a complete artistic expression. The sound may be influenced by guitarist Peter Buck's
cinematic jazz side project Tuatara or by Michael Stipe's celluloid excursions, but its source doesn't
matter. What's important is that more than a decade after their sell-by date, R.E.M. continue to
challenge and inspire. Things are definitely looking up