When R.E.M. called it quits in 2011, it was hard to deny that they were ending things on a high note. Their final two albums, that year’s Collapse into Now and 2008’s Accelerate, had been rightfully praised. Even if they felt a tad similar to what the band had already done, they were definitely a vast improvement over the mistakes the band had made before them. Or, that’s what the narrative says, anyway.
But when we consider R.E.M.’s legacy, are we excessively harsh on the three albums they made as a trio (before adding former Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin into the mix for the last two)? Let’s re-examine the three black sheep of the R.E.M. discography and see if we can’t find something to admire among the perhaps unfairly maligned.
In 1996, R.E.M. released New Adventures in Hi-Fi, their final album with original drummer Bill Berry. The album was vastly underrated at the time, but over the past two decades, it has morphed into its proper acclaim, which is befitting of an experimental release that rewards repeat listens. Unfortunately, shortly after the album’s release, Berry suffered an aneurysm, and decided not to return to R.E.M. At this point, the band faced a difficult decision: where most bands would have found a replacement drummer, R.E.M. continued on as a trio, with a drum machine essentially doing Berry’s job. Naturally, this altered the band’s sound considerably, as they embraced a far more mellow, at times electronic vibe, unlike anything they had done in the past. Understandably, the band’s longtime fans struggled to embrace this new approach.
The band’s first album as a trio was 1998’s Up, and it is easily the best work they did during this period. Honestly, now that New Adventures is getting the respect it so deserves, Up has probably taken its place as R.E.M.’s most underappreciated album. Fans and critics were lukewarm to the album’s drum-machine heavy sound, but over time, the album’s immense beauty reveals itself.
“At My Most Beautiful” is a stunning tribute to the Beach Boys that recalls Brian Wilson’s most sublime compositions, while “Daysleeper” paints an elegant portrait of a sad man just trying to get some damn sleep. One of Up’s most rewarding deep cuts, “Walk Unafraid” had its day in the sun last year, when it was covered by the duo First Aid Kit as part of the Wild soundtrack. The album still gets far less than the respect it deserves, but at least one of its best songs was introduced to an audience who might not otherwise think twice about R.E.M.
The follow-up, 2001’s Reveal, is a bit more rough around the edges than its predecessor, but it has some brilliant moments nonetheless. One in particular is its opening track, “The Lifting,” which lives up to its title by seemingly bringing listeners into the clouds as part of a dreamy airplane flight.