Who would have thought R.E.M. would have continued after drummer Bill Berry called it quits after nearly two decades? Not many, but the band soldiered on as a trio, and Up is the first album to be recorded as such. And while not an instant classic like pretty much every other R.E.M. disc, Up still is a brilliant effort.
By the time Up was released, REM had come a long way from its humble folksy beginnings. The band had already started experimenting with its music, at times shocking everyone by drastically changing styles on back-to-back records. Although on these occasions there was a deliberate effort by them to do something different, with Up the drastic change of sound is more forced upon then done by choice.
Blame it on the lack of a drummer if you will. This was the same year the Smashing Pumpkins fired Jimmy Chamberlain and made Adore without a substitute; both discs feature severe changes to the band's original sound. The Pumpkins' substitute for Chamberlain was the heavy use of synthesizers and an electronic drum machine. R.E.M. took the same approach, but unlike the Pumpkins, who used the synthesizers to transform their sound from modern rock to a dark post-modern progressive one, R.E.M.' use of electronics is more crude and primitive.
The very old-school approach to the keyboard gives a sort of laid-back 60s psychedelic appeal to Up, which does come across as a bit awkward at first. Except for “Daysleeper” and “Walk Unafraid,” which have the traditional folksiness, the rest of the record is shockingly weird unless it is treated with patience. The stoner “Airportman,” the sexy “Suspicion,” the sappy “Why Not Smile,” and even the rocker “Lotus” seem very unusual for an R.E.M. record.
Another very different thing about Up is that it is essentially a ballads album. Surprisingly, it has a subtly buoyant atmosphere. The edginess of other R.E.M. records has been toned down and replaced by relaxed ballads written by middle-aged hippies wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.
The band that we see on Up is unlike anything what we have known them to be for so long. But this new avatar is a symbol of the band’s determination to survive. The music may be drastically different, but it is still has the mark of the classiness that can never be separated from these guys.