Wednesday, October 20th, 2021
R.E.M. – Reflecting on the 20th Anniversary of “Reveal”
The Album First Came Out on May 14, 2001
Oct 20, 2021
By Austin Saalman
Upon the release of their 12th studio album in May 2001, alt rock giants R.E.M. had experienced their commercial breakthrough over a decade prior, earned three Grammy Awards, and established themselves as a major influence on ’90s popular culture. Their second album following the 1997 retirement of drummer Bill Berry saw the Athens, Georgia trio attempting to regain composure following 1998’s disappointingly lackluster Up, refining their generally uncanny ability to shed the tired skin of each previous release in favor of something fresh for the next. First we received the sunnily-dispositioned orchestral pop and country dabbling of 1991’s Out of Time, then the deep, melancholy balladry on 1992’s Automatic for the People, followed by the distorted assault of fuzzed-out glam rock that defined 1994’s less acknowledged masterpiece Monster—all of which seemed to culminate in 1996’s fearless New Adventures in Hi-Fi. In this respect, the mystical Reveal is no exception.
On “At My Most Beautiful” (perhaps one of frontman Michael Stipe’s major achievements as a lyricist, as well Up’s as most redeeming track), the band paid homage to Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. This fixation returns on Reveal, with three of its strongest tracks serving as R.E.M.’s take on Wilson’s 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. The remaining nine tracks also display a great variety of experimentation, with the atmospheric opener “The Lifting” and the subsequent “I’ve Been High” continuing the electronic exploration begun on Up, introducing a wide palette of some of the group’s most diverse compositions. The bleak “Disappear” responds to Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely,” released one year prior, and including the line “I’m not here/This isn’t happening”—a calming mantra once suggested by Stipe to an anxious Thom Yorke during a bout of crippling stage fright.
Second single “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star),” a possible tribute to songwriter Jimmy Webb, is one of two Reveal tracks to make it onto 2003’s In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003 (the second being anthemic “Imitation of Life,” on which guitarist Peter Buck revamps of the sunny jangle pop that brought the group their earliest successes), seeing the band going out of their way to apply their style to a genre largely removed from their own, with intriguing results. “Saturn Return” is a bleak piano ballad, as chilling as it is vulnerable, while “Chorus and the Ring” and “I’ll Take the Rain” serve as two of the album’s greatest tracks. The former, featuring lines such as “Hammered, shooting plywood in the backyard/Laughing ‘cause the racket makes the blackbirds sing” and “It’s the poison that in measures/Brings illuminating vision/It’s the knowing with a wink/That we expect in Southern women/It’s the wolf that knows which root to dig to save itself/It’s the octopus that crawled back to the sea” demonstrates the surprising degree of humanity to be gleaned from Stipe’s oblique lyrics. Also of note are power pop mastermind Ken Stringfellow’s stirring keyboard contributions, which are responsible for much of Reveal’s dazzling texture.
Of course, the highest points of Reveal are found within the aforementioned Pet Sounds homages, which begin with “Beat a Drum,” the band’s warmest song to date, placing itself ahead of such contenders as “Shiny Happy People” or “Stand,” in that “Beat a Drum” manages to keep its potential for unrestrained cartoonishness in check. In its pure simplicity, Stipe conjures an almost childlike vision of the peculiar interconnectedness between what is natural and what is human. Keyboardist Mike Mills’ rich piano melody does invite comparison to the pristine, dreamlike pop compositions of the Pet Sounds and Smile era, while also bearing some resemblance to the band’s own “At My Most Beautiful.” The far deeper “Summer Turns to High” features a myriad of sounds fathomed only, perhaps, in that lingering twilight between dreaming and awakening, when the shadows in one’s room still carry a sentience of their own. It would not be unfair to consider “Beachball,” the album’s closing track, to be R.E.M.’s own “Caroline, No,” as it ends the album with an intricate rush of temperate sadness. It’s all here—the jingling bells, the weeping strings, a chorus of horns, etc. Stringfellow weaves in and out on a chirping Hammond organ, not entirely unlike that featured on The Beach Boys’ own “I’m Waiting for the Day,” and when Stipe sings “We flash the seasoned sky/With starfished butterflies,” his lyrics shimmer with just enough faux-psychedelic pretension to feel appropriate. “Beachball” is where Reveal genuinely succeeds.
Peaking at No. 6, on the Billboard 200 chart, Reveal received a great deal more praise than its predecessor, landing on “best of” lists of several publications and returning R.E.M. to prominence. In an April 2021 interview, Michael Stipe declared Reveal his favorite R.E.M. release. While lacking the consistency of Automatic for the People or the ferocity of Monster, Reveal remains among them, a worthy offering from a brilliant band entering middle age, and looking toward the future with history still in mind.