REVEAL Reflection: Admin

Time and place play significant roles in my genuine appreciation for R.E.M.’s twelfth studio album. Of course, I am a fan of the entire discography, but, REVEAL was the score for a time in my life when I was experiencing a significant life transition and it remains as my favorite album by my favorite band.

I graduated from college in May 2000, married in June, and moved south from Binghamton, NY to Mooresville, NC in July to begin my first year as a fourth grade teacher in August. My wife and I muddled our way through the school year with the intent to return to New York as soon as I acquired enough experience to give me a better shot at getting a teaching job in the tougher New York State teacher job market. That year we faced a number of challenges ranging from normal circumstances that newlyweds face to unexpectedly significant culture shock. All that we had to look to for comfort and support that year was each other, the familiarity of television, and music. We were piecing together bits of our past in a brand new place under brand new circumstances.

R.E.M., having last released UP in 1998, and preparing to release REVEAL, were doing much of the same. The sound of the band and their comfort as a reorganized creative unit was growing. After building a firm reputation as a groundbreaking four-piece from the release of their debut EP CHRONIC TOWN (1982) through their tenth full-length album NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI (1996), the departure of drummer Billy Berry in 1997 necessitated a cooperative self-assessment by Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe regarding the future of R.E.M. as a band and, subsequent to their decision to continue, new creative dynamics that would inform the band’s future recordings.

Their eleventh studio album UP charted a bold change in direction relying heavily on a platform of abstract electric sounds, keyboards, and drum machine rhythms. Unfortunately, for me, UP was a hard pill to swallow. While some great songs came from the album (e.g., “Daysleeper,” and “Walk Unafraid”), my life context at the time of its release didn’t allow the album the fertile soil necessary to grow a deep appreciation for its experimental arrangements and often dark and introspective lyrics. It wouldn’t be until a few years later that I truly began to appreciate UP for the clever and experimental piece of art that it is.

The May 14, 2001 release of REVEAL came at a time, however, when the frenzy of my first year of teaching was winding down and the sunshine of springtime in North Carolina was just beginning to parade the heat and humidity of the south into reach. As I remember it now, the genius of REVEAL didn’t hit me over the head with my first listen, though. Unlike candy which is all sweet taste without much substance, the music featured on REVEAL is a savory multicourse meal that needs to be enjoyed, one bite at a time, in order to absorb its layered, lush, and humid flavor and it would end up having plenty of opportunity to do so.

From the day of its release, there was a high likelihood that if my wife and I were driving somewhere, REVEAL would be our soundtrack and, since 2001 was our first summer together as a married couple that was still quite unfamiliar with our southern surroundings, we did a lot of driving. With REVEAL liner notes and lyrics in my wife’s hand as I drove, we covered many miles of North Carolina roads singing along to Stipe’s lyrics which seemed (at least in tone and mood, if not directly), along with the instrumentation, to provide the perfect soundtrack as we became more and more comfortable with the parched red clay ground and brown grass of July and August that dominated the rural Piedmont area where we lived. The cover of the album strengthened the connection that my wife and I were making with the album because the photo featured in the cover design for REVEAL features a landscape not all that different from what surrounded us in our neighborhood. In addition, the fact that we were in a whole new phase of life with a new perspective from which to view our new life fell in sync with the still-experimental, yet lush and masterfully arranged, sounds that formed to backdrop to Stipe’s words. REVEAL featured just enough echo from R.E.M.’s past to sustain the personality of REVEAL as an R.E.M. album while simultaneously spreading the band’s boundaries into directions not only new to the band, but, new to R.E.M.’s audience and popular music in general.

My wife and I decided to stick around, as opposed to moving back to New York, so that I could attend the graduate program at Catawba College in Salisbury to earn my Masters degree. I have distinctive memories of absorbing the new and adventurous arrangements, whistles, beeps, beats, and sounds while driving back and forth to class each day.

It was apparent early on that REVEAL is not a pop album, but, an album as a whole, and that, perhaps, is one of the reasons I appreciate it as much as I do. With the exception of tracks that ended up being released as singles such as “Imitation Of Life,” “I’ll Take The Rain,” and “All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star),” the timing, phrasing, and arrangements on REVEAL rest most comfortably next to past works such as “Star Me Kitten,” and “Low,” with atmospheric moods that are perfectly comfortable with not falling into a typical rock protocol.

When describing the album to friends I tend to relate it more to classic jazz such as Blue In Green by Miles Davis. The album has a thread of sweet, slow, and ambient jazz sewn through it from the first track to the last.

Random reflections, thoughts, and favorite lines from the songs of REVEAL…

  1. The Lifting – Is the reference to a “seminar” in reference to religious revival meetings prevalent in the history of the south? “We’re only what our minds assume and rationale is leaving you…” Perfect opener.
  2. I’ve Been High – Surely one of my favorite R.E.M. songs. Personal interpretation of these lyrics frame the song as a documentation of the real dialogue that can happen between humanity and divine…a dialogue that, I think, is often so much more sincere and more beautiful than most people’s outright proclamations of faith. “…so I dive into a pool so cool and deep that if I sink I sink and when I swim I fly so high…” Brilliant.
  3. All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star) – Love the way the guitar and keyboards compliment each other throughout this song. Perfect song to sing along to while driving. “…Wing is written on your feet. Your achilles heel is the tendency to dream, but, you’ve known that from the beginning. You didn’t have to go so far…”
  4. She Just Wants To Be – “…Its not that she wasn’t rewarded with pomegranate afternoons of Mingus, Chet Baker and chess…”
  5. Disappear – One of the most genius lyrics that I know of. I interpret the lyrics as a reflection on place and purpose in the journey of life. The musical arrangement paints a bleak and disconcerting, yet beautiful, backdrop on which Stipe’s lyrics dance. “…look at this face. can you believe it? am I living in a beautiful vacuum, because I can’t see it. The vanishing point appears…”
  6. Saturn Returns – A perfectly restrained dance between lyric and music. Ambient rhythm persisting throughout the song like a transparent backbone. “…you’ve found a ladder in the patter of your wrist. You’ve seen and you’ve marked horizons…”
  7. Beat A Drum – The quintessential song of the album. A lazy celebration of summer and place, past and present. Beautiful melody. “…beat a drum for me like a butterfly wing, tropical storm across the ocean…”; “…doctorate in science and a theologian’s dream…dragonflies are trying to lecture me…sea horses if we were in the sea…”
  8. Imitation Of Life – The lead single. The most pop song on Reveal. But, a good pop song none the less with clever lyrics that triumph above pop standards. Love the keyboard solo by Ken Stringfellow. “…like a Friday fashion show teenager freezin’ in the corner trying to look like you don’t try…”
  9. Summer Turns To High – Another summer standard-bearing song, like Beat A Drum, complete with material ripe for references to the Beach Boys. Slow motion, dreamy summer bliss. “…after wine and nectarines, the fireflies and time move like syrup through the evening with a sweet resign…”; …but with a twist of loss toward the end: “..I won’t pine for what might have been, I’m preoccupied…”
  10. Chorus And The Ring – Searing emotion laced with nostalgic memory: “…that’s when the insults start to sting, you can’t remember anything…”; “…hammered shooting plywood in the backyard, laughin’ ‘cause the racket makes the blackbird sing…”
  11. I’ll Take The Rain – A song that is direct in its intent and loyal to its purpose. “…I used to think as birds take wing they sing through life so why cant we?…”
  12. Beachball – The closer. Appropriately fashioned in the same light and mellow vein as “Summer Turns To High” and “Beat A Drum.” Love the story behind this one with regards to the finished product. “…you’ll do fine…”

It is, perhaps, because of the subtle and consistent beauty that persists through the duration of this album, in combination with what I believe is one of Stipe’s best albums from a lyrical perspective, that makes this album stand up so tall over time in comparison to other members of the R.E.M. discography. Or, perhaps, it is the fact that the album helped me to realize just how much I still loved a band with roots in the south, that I’d loved for many years prior to moving south and, subsequently, helped me to identify with my new surroundings and to feel a bit more comfortable. Maybe it was a combination of these things. Regardless of the reason that my love for REVEAL has developed as it has, I truly believe that once R.E.M. hangs it up and we all have a chance to look back over their catalog of work as a whole, REVEAL will surely outshine its initial reputation. History will look kindly on it.

Until then, it will remain a go-to album in my music rotation and it will maintain its title as the summer album that I will choose to kick back and relax in the sun with as I usher in the glory of summertime at the end of each school year. And now that we have kids, its not just my wife and I singing along as we drive around in the summer sun.

Mark Rockwell
Summer Turns Site Author
Murmurs.com: mrocks7

Mike Mills and I after the BIG STAR'S THIRD tribute show at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, NC on 12/10/10

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