vs. war), Automatic for the People
(love vs. death), Monster
(love = guitars) and New Adventures in Hi-Fi
(guitars = sex). But the past few years have been rough on R.E.M. and their fans, especially with the departure of drummer Bill Berry. So it's inspiring to hear Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills brighten up on Reveal
, telling a few fables of their own reconstruction with an album of gorgeous, woozily sun-struck ballads. Reveal
won't need to grow on you - thirty seconds into the opener, "The Lifting," you can tell these guys got lucky with the muse again. Like U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind
, it's a spiritual renewal rooted in a musical one.
The last we heard from R.E.M. was the 1998 transitional album Up, their first without Berry, a sour, parched affair that hasn't gained any luster with time. The one keeper was the Brian Wilson smile of "At My Most Beautiful," best heard on the Never Been Kissed soundtrack (a stronger album song for song than Up). But if you go back to Up after hearing Reveal, you get the idea that this is the album they were trying to make then, and that this time they got all the way there and found a parking spot. The Eno-style keyboard textures have more room to breathe amid the largely acoustic guitars, with the arcane sound effects intricately woven into the songs. After a few dozen spins, the only ones I'm sick of are "Disappear" and "Saturn Return," for no good reason except, in the latter case, astrology filtered through Goldie and Gwen Stefani. The rest? Merely the R.E.M. of your dreams, all rambling guitars haunted by Stipe, who makes flesh and blood out of the lyrical riddles with his most effusive and emotional growls.
Reveal doesn't rock out much, which was never R.E.M.'s department anyway. Instead, they stick to the ruminative midtempo strum-groove where they feel at home, with guests Joey Waronker on drums, as well as the Posies' Ken Stringfellow and the Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey on keyboards. "Imitation of Life" might be the most beautiful song these gentlemen have put their names on since "Man on the Moon" back in 1992. Buck returns to the Rickenbacker-style guitar jangle of his early, hairy days, while the surging strings and playful keyboards raise goose bumps you didn't even remember you had. Like many of the highlights on Reveal, "Imitation of Lif