The de-Greening of R.E.M. gets off to a rousing start with "Radio Song," a propulsive, funk-accented dig at irrelevance on the airwaves that goes out on a fiery rap by Boogie Down Productions' KRS-One. The rest of the Georgians' first album since 1988's uncertain, compromised "Green" is a less emphatic recovery, but it's a recovery nonetheless.
The band's experiments with string arrangements and droning minimalism restore R.E.M.'s early air of mystery in a less opaque manner, and though the inspiration level is uneven, the musical probing reflects the kind of independence that first endeared R.E.M. to the alternative-rock generation.
If the band's first prime forebear was the Byrds, the antecedents here are more Velvet Underground/Lou Reed and Beach Boys: the former in the dry, deadpan voice and ominous aura of "Low" and the spoken narration of "Belong," the latter in the overlapping vocal parts of "Near Wild Heaven" and in "End Game," an instrumental with some of "Pet Sounds"' luxuriant melancholy.
There are moments of briskness, but the album is dominated by taut meditations in a chamber-rustic setting: acoustic guitars, mandolins and deep-voiced strings forming a gray sanctuary for contemplations on faith and love in a confusing world. Even B-52 Kate Pierson and a psychedelic-pop buoyancy can't exclude a strain of wistfulness from "Shiny Happy People."
If it's not always as absorbing as the band's previous peaks, the album suggests that R.E.M. remains worthy of its standing, and that it has a new foundation on which to build, while preserving its original values of integrity and individuality.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five stars (a classic).