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If, during its heyday, the Clash was the only band that mattered, R.E.M., during its ascendancy, was surely the only band that muttered. Joyful noisemaker Michael Stipe’s famously indecipherable words and shy-boy antics provided an early template for ’90s shoegazers—not to mention an entire generation of patchoulied and hirsute coffeehouse poets. For their part, Stipe’s instrument-playing bandmates kept busy by successfully prying the “Southern rock” label from the cold, dead hands of Lynyrd Skynyrd and other lesser lights of the musical movement known as, um, “boogie rock.”

Growing up New Wave in the early-’80s South meant more or less perpetual regional musical embarrassment until R.E.M. came along, and, erstwhile Floridian that I am, I oughta know. Sure, Tom Petty came from my neck of the woods, and fellow Athenians the B-52’s and Pylon got off to earlier starts, but to my ears the brothers R.E.M. were nothing less than the so-called New South’s first musical miracle: an arty folk-rock band from Georgia with terrific songs and a palpable but not desperate desire to connect with a larger audience. Especially on its first three records—1982’s Chronic Town EP; the landmark debut long-player, Murmur; and the rocked-out follow-up, Reckoning, all released in a matter of just 20 months—the music the band made was idiosyncratic and inviting, with gorgeous, warm-ray-of-sunshine melodies splayed sensuously across the chiming and frenetic folk rock that guitarist Pete Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry played as though they’d invented it. Producer du jour Mitch Easter aided and abetted the band, dialing the knobs first behind the console at his fabled Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, N.C., and then moving the boys down the road to Reflection Studios in Charlotte.

Those classic early records simultaneously conjured an aesthetic (call it jangle pop) and coalesced a previously disparate scene (call it indie), making it clear from the beginning that R.E.M. was indeed something special. For ironclad proof—just in case you’ve forgotten or were never exactly convinced in the first place—cue up the following historically accurate set list in your favorite MP3 player: “Slide It In,” “Round and Round,” “Pretty Persuasion,” “Oh Sherrie.”

There’s no denying it, right? Sandwiched between Whitesnake, Ratt, and Steve-Fucking-Perry on your least favorite toe-dipping AOR station, R.E.M. made the competition look like clowns (which they were). “Goddamn your confusion,” Stipe spat on “Pretty Persuasion,” one of the band’s first mainstream-radio “hits,” fusing the personal with the hypercritical and sticking a filterless-Camel-stained finger into the eyes of clamped-down radio programmers everywhere, programmers who just had to be wondering—like the Clash’s nemeses before them—What are we gonna do now?

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But good things, as they say, never last. To paraphrase the old philosophical conundrum, R.E.M.’s dilemma as the boys became ever more popular might be described thus: Are we a band co-opting the mainstream or are we the mainstream co-opting a band? Scattered highlights and the first half of 1987’s Document aside, subsequent records suggested the latter, which was disappointing in the same way that, say, learning that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy aren’t real is disappointing. Which is to say that the band’s rapid creative decline was a catastrophe of mind-altering proportions. I’m still not over it.

Yes, yes, I know: For legions of the band’s fans and “critics,” R.E.M. has never done anything wrong. Every time the group releases an album, Rolling Stone commissions an encomium, Spin finds a new reason to believe in rock ‘n’ roll again, and most of the rest of the music press plays along obligingly, desperate to praise something—anything—that sounds even slightly familiar and nonsynthetic during a period when pop’s most creative players are busy downloading Kraftwerk tracks and using them as blueprints for their music in the same way that R.E.M. and their ilk once used Byrds and Velvet Underground reissues as theirs. To everything there is a season, and for compelling neo-krautrock, the season is now.

To the group’s credit, that cultural shift has not gone unnoticed by R.E.M., whose newest release, Reveal, follows the lead of its previous long-player, Up, in adopting a quasi-ambient approach to the time-tested folk-rock melodies with which the band continues to earn its fat Warner Bros. paycheck (quality-control issues aside). As on Up, synthesizers occasionally gurgle, drums frequently loop, and texture replaces structure whenever feasible. Sometimes, the effect is merely meandering: “Summer Turns to High” heads in the direction of a hook but eventually dissipates into the ambient ether. The mournful “Saturn Return” and the plodding “Disappear” are similarly vaporous. “I looked for you and everywhere,” Stipe intones in his signature warble on the latter, sounding for all the world as if he’s lost his favorite kite—or, more likely, the point of the song. At other times, though, the band is in full command of its new sonic vocabulary. “I’ve Been High,” a percussive and beautifully organ-drenched ballad, is one of the album’s several near-misses, its gorgeous instrumentation enlivened by hyperactive special effects. The cathartic and psychedelicized album opener, “The Lifting,” is also effective, at least until Stipe tries his hand at scatting, chanting the word “never” with a nervous tic near the song’s end. And the lush Brian Wilson tribute “Beachball,” with trumpets that recall both deep-fried Memphis soul and The Dating Game theme song, should make post-rock outfits such as Kreidler and Trans Am reconsider the relative merits of brass instruments.

So, no, the problem with Reveal isn’t with the music Messrs Buck and Mills and their several invited guests serve up, which is interesting-to-compelling at least half of the time. And it’s also not with the album’s production, for which the group once again enlisted Pat McCarthy, who’s turning out to be an ace ambienteer. No, the trouble is with a certain singer who gave up joyful noisemaking in favor of strident vocalizing a long time ago. With each new album, Stipe seems to get louder and more aggressively front-and-center; it’s the very antithesis of the seductive, understated approach he took earlier in the band’s career.

When the melodies work, of course, that’s not a problem. When they don’t, everyone’s luck runs out. And on Reveal, no one gets lucky. Throughout the ballad-heavy album, the melodies often sound as grafted on as a third arm. For this record, Stipe has said, “I worked hard to squeeze as much melody as I could into every song.” If that’s the case, he must have an especially weak grip. By my count, Reveal includes just three real keepers, melodywise: the elegantly hook-laden “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star),” the languid “Beat a Drum,” and the album’s first single, “Imitation of Life,” wherein Stipe sounds as though he finally remembers that he was the one who came up with the lovely, barely-there falsetto that makes Chronic Town’s “Gardening at Night” a thoroughly Southern piece of art: primitive but complex, graceful but unrefined—like a short story by Faulkner (“A Rose for Emily,” say) or a painting by the band’s beloved Howard Finster.

I used to fantasize that R.E.M. would return to form with a massive double-disc country-rock opus that would reclaim the band’s Southern roots, make stylistic carpetbagger Jeff Tweedy green with envy, and jolt the No Depression movement out of its form-worshipping doldrums. It’s become pretty clear that that’s not going to happen. Nowadays, I’d settle for a record that mixes Stipe’s singing down from 11 and comes with something more than a stingy handful of memorable tunes. On Reveal, unfortunately, R.E.M. makes it pretty clear that that’s not going to happen, either. CP