As heard on this album's captivating lead single “Imitation of Life”, R.E.M. can still tap into its classic brand of jangling pop splendor. But Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills are far more intrigued with exploring new worlds and new soundscapes these days.
Reveal rarely rocks, but R.E.M. in 2001 is stratospheres beyond those kind of simplified categorizations. If you're searching for a frame of reference for this set, think Brian Eno, think Brian Wilson, think Radiohead, and think pulsating colors. Then throw everything you were thinking of out the window and let Stipe sing lead.
Recorded in Dublin, Vancouver, and Miami, the album is atmospheric, layered in keyboards and occasional string textures, a swirling mix of melody and typically oblique lyrics. From the ethereal opening song, “The Lifting”, the mood is set, as R.E.M. spins through tracks like the dream-weaving “I've Been High” and the spaghetti western torch 'n' twang standout “All The Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star).”
Stipe's singing is the one consistent factor running throughout the disc, and his vocals are frequently mesmerizing. Against a strange clatter of keyboards, whistles, and drum machines, he runs wonders around the stark piano chords on “Saturn Return” and captures the windswept effervescence of summer on the very Wilson-esque “Beat a Drum”.
While the band occasionally loses direction—“Chorus and the Ring” for example is a flat-out bore—the arrangements are compelling and the songs are enchanting without being overtly filled with hooks. Stipe is far more concerned with touching the emotional soul of the songs as he does right through the closing tandem of “I'll Take the Rain” and the far more buoyant taste of California sun, “Beachball”.