When Bill Berry left R.E.M., it could’ve been the end of the band. On some level, the remaining three — Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck — probably wanted it to be the end, but the story goes that Berry left with the stipulation they had to keep going as R.E.M. The ensuing second half of R.E.M.’s career — the trio years, what’s now become known as the “three-legged dog” era — was full of searching, experimentation, new revelations but also stylistic pitfalls, and ultimately a homecoming and goodbye. It all began with 1998’s Up, a claustrophobic album that leaned into electronica. While Up is now held in high esteem by plenty of R.E.M. fans, it was more baffling then, when one of the biggest rock bands in the world seemed to be retreating inside their heads and new machines. For a few more albums, R.E.M. would continue to experiment and figure out how the band could grow and sound without Berry. But at the same time, they built up their next album as something happier than Up, another new beginning.
That album, Reveal, turned 20 on Saturday. At the time, some wrote about it as if this was R.E.M. returning to some core element of their sound after drifting off on Up. Rather, Reveal was another transformational pivot, building on some elements of Up but also answering others in a new tone. It has little to do with the core R.E.M. sound, and yet does feel somehow more endemically R.E.M.-esque than Up. It sits right in the middle of the group’s wandering years, and thus still explored a lot of new territory. But perhaps most importantly: In a career lined with the long shadows of multiple iconic albums and cult favorites alike, Reveal just might be the most underrated album in a hallowed catalogue.
I know I had heard R.E.M. songs before, but the earliest R.E.M. song I remember being aware of was “Imitation Of Life.” I was 10 when Reveal came out, and was just starting to vaguely put faces to the names of bands my parents or other older people around me liked. One time that summer, we were in California visiting my cousin, who was out in LA pursuing acting. She was in the “Imitation Of Life” video. That’s her in the (bottom-left) corner, dancing during the video’s strange time loop pool party. For years I’m pretty sure I thought this was actually “Orange Crush,” just because that was a famous R.E.M. song I knew about and “Imitation Of Life” sounds like it could be called “Orange Crush.”
“Orange crush” wouldn’t be a bad phrase to describe the entirety of Reveal, though. Following the hissing, cold electronics of 1998’s Up channeling not just the band’s confusion after Berry’s departure but also a kind of creeping pre-millennium anxiety, Reveal exists in a small transitional pocket after the turn of the century. Instead, this one had a warm, vibrant sound. It continues on from Up in terms of playing with electronic and synth textures, but now it was all glowing, sunburnt, flickering. The band recorded it in Canada and Ireland and Georgia, but it sounds like a deeply Californian work — an album of psychedelic echoes, a fractured dream on the other side of the American Century.
While “Imitation Of Life” is my earliest R.E.M. memory, I didn’t make it back to the rest of Reveal until later, when I had the context of Murmur and Automatic For The People and all the other quintessential R.E.M. albums. Once you know the whole scope, Reveal is an obvious outlier. Compared to Up, it might’ve felt like R.E.M. returning to themselves in the sense that you had plenty of big Stipe melodies. But now those were weaving in with a gorgeous, lush, aqueous sound unlike anything they did before or since.
It all opened with a song appropriately titled “The Lifting.” The song kicks off Reveal with a bloom, sunrise synths and sound effects bursting into color, but there’s already a narrative counterpoint with the fact that “The Lifting” is a prequel to “Daysleeper” featuring the same protagonist undergoing some strange therapeutic ritual. From there, the Beach Boys influence glimpsed on Up recurs throughout Reveal. While on Up it was the chamber-pop of “At My Most Beautiful” and “Why Not Smile” trying to bring gently beauty to the static and anesthetized world of Up, on Reveal it’s more like a bunch of sad beach songs. R.E.M. were getting into their middle age, and the band had gone through a significant loss. In that way, there’s a weathered take on lost innocence that partially defines Reveal. A song like “I’ve Been High” feels like it could’ve only emerged from this one moment in R.E.M.’s career; immersive and not without hope, yet worn-out and trying to recapture a sense of wonder.
For all the theoretically bright images — a lifting, a high, a beach ball — there is a wistfulness and melancholia running through Reveal. In the Technicolor swoon of “All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star),” it’s the delusions that arise from a pop culture-addled and celebrity-obsessed American culture. “Imitation Of Life,” too, seems to meditate on the more pernicious mechanics of fame, but at the same time was broad enough that anyone could relate to it, thinking of those moments where you are going through the motions in life without being fully grounded in yourself or your surroundings. In other songs, like “She Just Wants To Be” and “Disappear,” there are also threads of distances that develop within yourself, leaving a trail that suggested R.E.M. might’ve been aiming for something happier but were still, deep down, going through an ongoing identity reckoning in this new era. That might be more obvious than ever on “Saturn Return,” one of the album’s darkest songs, a reference to coming-of-age turning points that feels like a hazy dead end.
You could almost say the words “I’ll Take The Rain” were the manifesto for Reveal. The album’s penultimate track and third single, “I’ll Take The Rain” is a patient, anthemic song with seemingly downer lyrics. “I used to think/ As birds take wing/ They sing through life so why can’t we?” Stipe asks in the chorus, before concluding: “If this is what you’re offering/ I’ll take the rain.” Across Reveal, it does seem like the rain’s pouring down, all of it settling into this sort of summer bummer aesthetic. But maybe there was something like resolve in the lyrics of “I’ll Take The Rain” too. By the end, the album crests into a mesmerizing finale — including, bizarrely, with Buck playing guitar lines that sound a lot like John Frusciante’s early ’00s style — and Stipe’s repetition of the chorus seems like the band resolving to keep pushing forward and figuring themselves out in this new era, like a decision someone makes to embrace all the bad and good things as much as they can.
Which brings us back to “Imitation Of Life.” As a kid, all I knew was that it was a deeply catchy song. It makes sense in the context of Reveal, but it also does have a classic R.E.M. pop character to it, and was generally a signal that Reveal was at least an interpretation of pop music. The song is one of the most memorable from their latter years, and was a hit overseas. But it’s also one of those perfect pop songs that isn’t quite happy or sad, or is maybe both. It’s a rush, but it also hits you with this yearning. All these years removed from first seeing that video, now it’s one of the R.E.M. songs I go back to again and again and always find something else. One man’s meditation on fame becomes another’s anthem for life racing past you; anyone can find their own meaning in “No one can see you try.” “Imitation Of Life” is an outlier song on an outlier album, but in other ways it captures the whole scope of Reveal, and also reflects an ennui often present in R.E.M.’s music.
That’s what makes Reveal so rich and strange all these years later. The whole thing sounds like old photos with a 21st century gloss, ’60s orchestrations and trippy guitar lines crafted with a digital-era clarity. Time collapses in its sound and themes alike; what was supposed to be the happy record — and then just sounded like another sad record — winds up traversing a complex emotional scale. From here on out, the road was complicated: what many regard as their low point with Around The Sun, then wrapping it up with actual classicist R.E.M. albums Accelerate and Collapse Into Now. Reveal often gets lost in the shuffle, the middle child between Up and Around The Sun as well as one of the “weird” albums before the “R.E.M.’s back!” narrative hook accompanying their last two. Maybe that’s fitting for an album like this. However old you are when you find it, it’s a rare situation: a band everyone knows in and out, with an album that can still offer you a whole different world within their story when you get there.