In 1982, when R.E.M. released its Chronic Town EP, the band’s music and identity were based around Peter Buck’s chiming guitar hooks and Bill Berry’s vigorous drumming. But Buck grew tired of his trademark sound, and Berry left the band in 1997. What sustained R.E.M. on later albums, including 2001’s Reveal, was the rapid musical growth of singer Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills, who was also the group’s most accomplished keyboard player. “It’s not a rock record per se, but it’s a beautiful-music record,” Mills said later. The music is gentle but not frail, and largely dominated by Stipe’s ability to stretch syllables into a rhythm and fit intricate lyrics into expansive melodies. (Example: “A blue jay hectors from the felled catalpa tree.”) The band members said Reveal was meant to evoke the school’s-out freedom of summer, but, like most things in R.E.M.’s catalog, the most frequent tone is bittersweet and rueful. “The Lifting,” a prequel to the previous album’s song “Daysleeper,” is set in a conference room, where a seminar attendee, who believes only in what’s tangible, tries to escape logic so she can “drift and fly away.” (As we said, the lyrics are intricate.) Even the planets seem to be having a hard time: “Saturn is orbiting nothing,” Stipe sings in “Saturn Return.” The first two singles from the album were more in the traditional R.E.M. mold. On “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star),” Buck plays a twangy guitar line that evokes the 1970s crossover country songs of Glen Campbell. The rousing “Imitation of Life” has multiple layers of guitars, as well as a glorious string arrangement and a big chorus. Neither was a hit; as Mills later said, “At that point, nobody really gave a damn about R.E.M. singles.” Indeed, there’s lots of beauty on the record, as well as surprises: the chorus to “Beat a Drum,” the keyboard pulses that cushion “Beachball,” the synthesizer solo in “Imitation of Life,” and the way Stipe, throughout the record, uses the upper range of his flexible voice to create a feeling of calm yearning. It’s the R.E.M. album that most feels like time in the chill-out room.

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