R.E.M. has finally hit the wall. The wall that never seemed even to be in view -- at least since the group signed with Warner Bros. more than 13 years ago. In that time, R.E.M. has consistently rewritten itself, always keeping one step ahead of expectations. The big-league jump/stumble Green was followed by the shiny happy pop of Out of Time, the somber Automatic for the People, the Monster rock album, the mostly live New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and the low-energy Up, all of which revealed intriguing changes of pace. With Reveal, its 12th album, the band has nothing new to say.
Think Up, with little of that album's irony and more of its arcane melodies, and you have the essence of Reveal. It isn't a bad album; it just isn't an exciting one. And what R.E.M. has delivered all the way back to 1981's "Radio Free Europe" through Up was exhilaration, a musical thrill ride that was just as ear-openingly exploratory whether you knew what singer Michael Stipe was saying (everything on Warner) or not (pretty much everything before Green). You get what's going on here, but it's not a whole lot different from last time. Now into its second album without drummer Bill Berry, R.E.M. piles on the compensating studio gadgets. "The Lifting" opens the album with the hum of electro-machines kicking into gear. By the time "Beachball" deflates 53 minutes later, the band has pretty much exhausted its power. Only the alt-nostalgic sun-pop of "Imitation of Life" seems clutter-free in this environment. Strings, synth ambience, and barely-there percussion drive these songs, which amount to Brian Wilson-style orchestral pop for the new millennium.