Somewhere along the way in their 20-year journey together, the members of R.E.M. finally figured out their place in the scheme of things. Eschewing the jangle-pop that made them the prototypical "alternative" band in the '80s, their 12th album, Reveal, mines the atmospheric ballads that became their stock-in-trade on '90s albums like Automatic For The People and Up.
Wildly layered guitar and synthesizer tracks create moody, dramatic songs that feature lucid vocals from rock's most famous mumbler. Not only has Michael Stipe's voice become the featured instrument in this trio, but his lyrics are more poignant than ever. Passages like "After wine and nectarines/the fireflies and time/move like syrup through the evening/with a sweet resign" (from the Brian Wilson homage "Summer Turns to High") evoke vivid images and reaffirm Stipe's presence as a truly gifted Southern gothic poet. Mike Mills and Peter Buck continue to provide Stipe with a well-primed canvas on which to splash his broad brush strokes. Buck has pared down his guitar attack to the essentials, realizing that in space lies simplicity and elegance. Sure, this isn't something you'll want to put on during the heat of a late-night party, but it's absolutely perfect for that quiet, rainy afternoon at home, curled up barefoot with a trashy novel.
While fans of the old R.E.M. may long for a rocker or two, they're certainly not going to be disappointed by the quality of songs on this album. In a reassuring message wedged in the final track, "Beachball," Stipe offers this nugget of comfort: "This life is sweet/we're dancing in the street/who knows who you might meet? ... you'll do fine."