What makes Reveal so terrific is that it feels like starting over and looking back at the same time. In their latest album, R.E.M. take chances, working weird and experimental keyboard noises and beats à la Radiohead into their songs. On the other hand, they also remain grounded in that distinctive, now classic sound that won us over in the first place, the way U2 did on All That You Can't Leave Behind. The album straddles R.E.M.'s past and their future, sounding fresh, assured and on par with their best previous efforts.
For this album, R.E.M. seem to take the approach that nothing from their 20-odd years of record-making is off limits so long as it fits the song. That strategy is evident from the very first cut, "The Lifting," a mélange of burbling keyboards, chattering percussion and swirling guitar that builds to Michael Stipe chanting "never." New ideas (like the synth underpinning "I've Been High" or the keyboards on "Beat A Drum"), old ideas (the elegant guitar that anchors the sardonic "All the Way to Reno," and the chiming and deceptively simple "Chorus and the Ring") there's a place for all of them, as long as they're good ideas. Their long and honorable string of Beach Boys homages finds its latest expression in "Summer Turns to High"; in contrast, "Beachball" bounces off a true rarity for R.E.M. straight-ahead soul-style horns.
For most of the album the trio (augmented by Joey Waronker, Scott McCaughey, Ken Stringfellow and Jamie Candiloro) juxtapose new and old within the same song. The first single, "Imitation of Life," may be grounded by a classic R.E.M. jangly-guitar riff, but it also features strings and a weird little synth break just when you'd expect a guitar solo. And just when the epic "I'll Take the Rain" has piled strings and organ and piano on top of its achingly lovely melody, Peter Buck comes in perfectly on guitar.
So, after the fearful-sounding, sometimes tentative, highly underrated Up, R.E.M. have their mojo back, entering their third decade as a rock band still vital and relevant. It's something few artists in rock's 50-or-so-year history have been able to do, and maybe the most thrilling thing about growing into middle age with R.E.M. is watching them continue to pull off this trick hopefully again and again and again.