Two years ago, R.E.M. looked to be all played out, as "New Adventures in Hi-Fi," the group's first forgettable album in a long and distinguished career, met with a public shrug.
But adaptability has been the band's hallmark. After repeatedly making the same jangling-guitar album through the '80s, when it was the hope and conscience of off-the-mainstream rock, R.E.M. diversified its sound; its first three '90s releases were creative and commercial high points.
Whether the inward, downcast "Up" can recover the blockbuster sales of "Out of Time," "Automatic for the People" and "Monster" is far from certain, especially since R.E.M. won't tour now. But the album's resourceful and cohesive soundscape and its passionate take on end-of-the-century malaise at least stop a skid toward irrelevance.
The band's first album as a trio following the departure of drummer Bill Berry documents guilt and flagging spirits and comes laden with fin de siecle anxiety. No bopping tunes for the kids here, just songs that mainly sort through confusion and reach uncertainly for clarity, set to a new sonic construct that's a muted pop-baroque.
Peter Buck's once-assertive guitars mostly have gone all liquidy or simply disappeared; a layered array of pianos, organs, string adornments and mechanically ticking synthesizers and beat boxes supersedes the old guitar-band approach to evoke twilight moods that are by turns unsettling and caressing.
Singer Michael Stipe's comforting voice is welcome on the lustrous, innocent and aptly named love song "At My Most Beautiful." A homage to the Beach Boys of "Pet Sounds," it shines in its own right.
On the chillier side, "Hope" sounds like Kraftwerk covering Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," with R.E.M.'s angst and mechanical beats ruling out any Cohen-like surrender to a sustaining mystery.
The only two rockers on "Up" are "Lotus," which seems to be a renunciation of the big rock 'n' roll ego-projection racket, and "Walk Unafraid," an embattled pep-talk that harks back to the determined call for passion and honest self-hood that was so inspiring in the early R.E.M.
"Airport Man," an ambient dream, and "Daysleeper," a study in anomie, invoke today's global economy and information overload as opiates of the masses; by the end, with the steely hymn "Falls to Climb," Stipe imagines himself finding freedom from this dog-eat-dog order via some unspecified form of voluntary self-sacrifice. In this matured and chastened vision, the end of the world as we know it is necessary, but it probably won't feel fine.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).