I’ll be honest I’d forgotten this album existed. Which was a shock considering how much I love it. REM were the first band I ‘got-into’ as a young teen. My brother got me Automatic for the People for Christmas one year and it was all I listened to for a long time until Ben Folds Five came along and changed my life. While New Adventures in Hi-Fi remains my favourite REM album, I loved (almost) everything the did in the 90s. I generally deem the 90s as their best era. You can split a lot of REM fans into whether they are fans of early or late REM (no one likes the last two albums though) in the same way the Beatles get separated into pre and post Sgt Pepper. Like all 80s music I’m generally ‘meh’ about 80s REM - undeniably excellent though it is - and feel they really came into their own in the 90s, which is why it was such a disappointment when Around the Sun came out in 2004 and was so utterly rubbish. Accelerate was better but is simply okay and therefore a sad final bow for one of the greatest bands of the 20th century.
Reveal came after Up from 1998 which was met with confusion by a listening public who had got used to their post-grunge-pop wonderfulness and were presented with a very different sound. Up was made in the midst of drummer Bill Berry leaving the band and the remaining members seeing if they could continue. I love Up, it’s different but in a good way. Darker, more electronic, but still fiercely melodic. There was still the backlash though so the band went into creative hibernation for a bit. Then, with little fanfare, Reveal was announced in 2001 and the initial singles of Imitation of Life and All The Way To Reno chimed with the music they made for the Jim Carrey car crash Man on the Moon. The single The Great Beyond from that movie was a hit, however, so it made sense they would go with this more upbeat, sun-kissed sound for an entire album. And it works. If Up was all dark, electronic introspection, Reveal is Brian Wilson-esque, sun-bleached, psychedelic wonder.
Listening to this album again after probably 10 years, prior to which I over listened to it, is a strange experience. I had forgotten just how hard 60s Psychedelia they went. Pulsing and throbbing phasers and tremolos in nearly every track give it a woozy wobbly sound, combined with the odd chirps, clicks and pops that are sampled and overlaid in every song, twangy baritone guitars and silky smooth organs all culminate in an audio soundscape that means you can almost feel the hot sun beating down on you. The overall mid-tempo beats also slow the whole thing down to a gentle summer stroll. Of course, Peter Buck’s luscious picking guitar and Mike Mills rich, melodic Bass is all over it too which sits perfectly in the middle of the dreamscape but its Michael Stipe’s vocals that seem to have really found their home. Stipe’s typically abstract lyricism combined with his frail and emotional delivery captures the 60s surf/psychedelic influence so well, but for the first time the lyrics have a shared characteristic for a whole album. The Sun is almost a recurring character in the album while dragonflies, butterflies, bluejays, cottoned candy, sugar cane, lemonade, beaches, even Gallileo all get a mention across the 12 songs. Stipe knows what this album is doing and goes all in on the imagery and it creates a cohesion to the whole thing that positively envelops you. Even the album art reflects the sun-soaked air of delight. Listening to this on a cold, grey October day in the UK I could feel sun on the back of my neck and heat haze off the highway. It takes a lot to transport you through music to somewhere you’ve never been or known but this album manages it consistently.
None of this is to say the album is ‘samey’. The album has its darker moments, like in She Just Wants To Be, the acoustic guitars come out and Saturn Return sounds like a lost transmission from outer space but on the whole Reveal is about that lazy summer feeling you get, meant to be played as a whole to capture a long day on the beach or on a road trip. It’s a concept album in that sense. You even have I’ll Take The Rain toward the end that acts like a summer shower hissing off the hot tarmac and the petrichor filling your senses. It’s a testament to what can be achieved when a unit as talented as REM fall behind a unifying idea and goes all in on it. An album that was such a burst of creative energy and so rich with feeling, Reveal was an immediate hit. Five stars in every review, applauded by fans and critics alike it hailed the return of one of the 90s best bands and set them up for a perfect trajectory into the 21st century. The summer of 2001 was a long hot delight and Reveal was its soundtrack.
And then 9/11 brought it to a crashing end. An event whose shadow casts long into today, shaping the 21st century in a way nobody expected. The bleak misery that followed, the political and military fallout, and cultural distrust is what laid the road to the mess we’re in now. Consequently, Reveal looks hopelessly antiquated and wincingly naïve looking back on it. Ironically Up is better suited to the cynical nihilism of today’s culture but instead Reveal’s upbeat positivity seems a product of a lost time. REM struggled to adjust and 10 years and two albums later they called it a day having never reached the dizzy heights of Reveal again. A really sad ending to my mind. I saw them live not long before they broke up (thank goodness) and don’t recall them playing a single song off Reveal at the gig. It got buried by history. The final track Beachball’s message of hope: “you’ll do fine” has such a bitter irony to it now it’s almost unlistenable. But at the time this album was a bona fide hit. Number 1 in the charts, hit singles, glowing reviews, as a fan it was great to hear everyone enjoying one of my favourite bands as the new millennium got going, the future looked bright and Reveal reflects that optimism. An optimism that’s now very dead. It seems prophetic the other album from the year that was a huge hit was the pitch-black debut ‘Gorillaz’ which, looking back now, seems a little too prophetic. Years later, Damon Albarn of Gorillaz would go back to his 90s band Blur and record Magic Whip which feels like the spiritual ‘post 9/11’ sequel to Reveal. Probably not intentional but still worth noting.
Hindsight is a funny thing, but it puts Reveal in such an unflattering context it breaks my heart. It’s undoubtedly one of REM’s best, it just came out too late. Or too early. Please go back to it if you know it, it’s a beautiful album and comes with its own pair of rose-tinted glasses for anyone who got it when it came out. If you don’t know it, you’re in for a treat. Turn up the heating, lie back in a bathing costume and imagine you’re on a beach somewhere hot. Better still, take it to a hot beach and enjoy. You’ll do fine.
Standout tracks, like always, are the singles. Imitation of Life and All The Way To Reno plant the flag for the super sunny psychedelia but its I’ll Take The Rain that takes the crown. The perfect album capper that has hints of REM at their hopeful, uplifting best, akin to Nightswimming, et al. Personal favourites though are I’ve Been High that is like a blissful emotional soup I would listen to over and over as a 17 year old, She Just Wants To Be that was more like the New Adventures darkness I loved, and Beachball is all kinds of Beatles/Beach Boys gorgeousness I was so happy to rediscover upon relistening to write this review. A shot of pure summer joy, Reveal is an instant cure for what ails you. See what it reveals to you.