It’s no secret that I wholeheartedly love R.E.M. I talk about them regularly on Twitter; I call myself a R.E.M. enthusiast on Instagram. By the time they released Reveal, 20 years ago this weekend, the band was already significant to my five-year-old self. I could take one look at the opening scene of the “Losing My Religion” music video and know the song was starting. The water drips from an open window; Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry run across the dark room while Michael Stipe stays seated; Tarsem Singh’s “melodramatic and very dreamlike” direction still captivates me. I loved that song while not understanding why I connected with it at such a young age. Maybe I loved it because my parents did, too.
My parents didn’t follow R.E.M. in the 80s. Sure, they would have heard “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – which dad hates – and “The One I Love” (which dad loves), but besides those two tracks, R.E.M. wasn’t breaking through in Australia. They didn’t hear “Fall on Me” on the radio, which is a travesty if you ask me. Life’s Rich Pageant – my favorite R.E.M. album, depending on the day – spent seven weeks on the Australian chart. A year later, in 1987, Document enjoyed nine weeks on the chart. Out of Time sat pretty for a whopping 33 weeks on the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Chart. Automatic for the People spent 52 weeks on the ARIA chart. By 1992, the band was rightfully inescapable in my home country.
Despite the wild success R.E.M. celebrated in their “peak” periods – for some, the peak is their run on IRS Records; for others, it’s the four-album run of Document, Green, Out of Time, and Automatic for the People – the band’s later output is criminally overlooked. If you look at pure sales and chart positions, they are among the most successful groups of all time. They are the college rock band that could. If you’re a Radiohead, Nirvana, or Pavement follower, you know the influence R.E.M. has had on them. Some people proclaim any album up to Automatic to be their last great album. If you’re one of those individuals, I have a couple of questions for you: Have you heard New Adventures in Hi-Fi? How about Up? Most importantly, have you sat and listened to Reveal?
Reveal opens with lush strings and glitchy synthesizers. “The Lifting” is a prequel of sorts to the Up single, “Daysleeper.” The song features the same character – “she can’t get anything concrete, so she goes off to a seminar to find it,” Stipe said in an interview with Jools Holland. “The Lifting” ends with a dream of oceans and sunken cities, a sense of deja vu. It’s a beautiful song that recalls yet another quintessential single, “The Great Beyond,” in melody. In “All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star),” Stipe’s empathy for his fictional characters is the main star. Instrumentally, it’s easy to call it cheesy. However, I think it would fit on a movie soundtrack. While “Reno” reveals a character who may as well have “kick me” fastened on their sleeve, listening to Stipe’s yearning wail, “you know who you are” projects the kind of empathy for another person’s sense of self that’s difficult to express in words. Stipe remains one of the finest songwriters I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to for his character writing alone.
On “Disappear,” my two biggest musical fandoms collide – Michael Stipe claims to have ripped off Radiohead. The story goes like this: Thom Yorke experienced extreme stage fright and depression during the massive OK Computer tour. Stipe, his close friend, advised him to say the words, “I’m not here, this isn’t happening,” as a meditative mantra whenever Yorke found himself spinning out of control. That expression became the chorus to Kid A’s stunning “How To Disappear Completely.” The track so inspired Stipe that he wound up writing “Disappear.” In a 2019 interview with NME, Stipe revealed that after hearing the shared inspiration in the songs, he called Yorke and apologized for stealing his idea. Yorke responded by saying that “How To Disappear Completely” is more of a R.E.M. song than a Radiohead song. Who ripped off who doesn’t matter – two of my favorite artists inspired two incredible songs. The only problem is this: the MTV Unplugged version of “Disappear” is more impressive than the studio cut.
No one does MTV Unplugged like R.E.M. The 1991 concert is a goldmine of riches; deep cuts and mega singles are performed with grace. There are heart-wrenchers – “Half A World Away,” “Fall on Me,” and “Fretless,” in particular – and hits: “Losing My Religion,” It’s The End of the World As We Know It,” but it doesn’t even compare to the 2001 Unplugged concert. The band lost something essential with the departure of drummer Bill Berry; there’s no doubt about that. No one has his feel, and R.E.M. wouldn’t attempt to replicate his playing. So, Up, the first album minus Berry, made use of drum machines, while Joey Waronker stepped in to record drums and percussion on Reveal. On MTV Unplugged 2001, however, all of that falls to the wayside. Berry will always be missed, but this concert showcases Stipe’s dynamic voice, celebrates Mills’ bass riffs, and Buck’s influential guitar playing style. The concert feels like classic R.E.M.
The setlist is unreal. After hearing “Daysleeper” acoustic, I can’t listen to the studio version. The same goes for “So. Central Rain,” “Country Feedback,” “Cuyahoga,” and “Find the River.” The Reveal tracks, on the other hand, elevate and accompany the original recordings. “Imitation of Life” – their first number-one single in Japan – is delightful; never have I enjoyed Stipe singing out of tune more. Stripped of its electronics, “Disappear” thrives and even earns a piano solo. “I’ll Take The Rain” was dubbed the “lost great R.E.M. single” by the commentary team on Rock Legends, and I’m inclined to agree, especially when it’s this stark. MTV Unplugged 2001 is so intimate that it feels wrong to be listening when Stipe’s vocal is entirely raw and giving his all, emotionally. The imperfections – cracking vocals and missed lines – draw me back to MTV Unplugged 2001 far more than its predecessor. Different imperfections consequently pull me back to Reveal.
Reveal is a great album. Although, it does have its missteps. “Summer Turns To High” and “Chorus And The Ring” are just kinda there, filler tracks if you will, and “Beachball” might be fine for fans of The Beach Boys-inspired tunes, but as I am not, that track simply doesn’t work for me. I wish that the band were more innovative with their use of electronics, but as synthesizers and drum machines aren’t first nature for R.E.M., I can give them some leeway. Besides, the highs on Reveal are outstanding. “She Just Wants To Be” might have inspired the Unplugged version of “Disappear;” it’s that good.
Meanwhile, “Saturn Return” tests the band on multiple fronts. It’s cinematic, melancholy, and Stipe’s falsetto is to-die-for. It’s the best use of synthesizers on the whole album. With all the experimentation and lack of Bill Berry, Reveal is a first-rate R.E.M. album. Sure, I checked it out thanks to MTV Unplugged, but I stayed for the songs. It doesn’t matter that the record doesn’t possess jangly guitars and isn’t lo-fi like Murmur or doesn’t rock like Monster; those days are gone. Eighteen years into their career, R.E.M. still pushed themselves and still wrote gorgeous songs. Isn’t that why we love them?
Last month, Michael Stipe told Rolling Stone that Reveal is now his favorite R.E.M. album. Today, it’s mine, too.