New Adventures in Hi-Fi functioned as the starting point for Up, R.E.M.'s first album without drummer Bill Berry and their first that truly repudiates the legacy of jangle pop. Up is dominated by keyboards, muted percussion, buried guitars, and moody melodies -- only "Daysleeper" finds the group in familiar sonic territory. What's striking about the album is that it doesn't sound like a dramatic departure; even without the ringing guitars, it sounds like R.E.M., albeit R.E.M. trying to be adventurous and hip. To a certain extent, that's a good thing, since it proves that the band has developed a signature sound more elastic than many would have predicted, and that they are skilled enough to successfully take risks with their sound. Above all else, Up is an accomplished and varied record, the work of smart record-makers. It is also the work of veteran musicians -- for the first time, R.E.M. sound like they're playing catch-up, trying to keep their hip status intact. Occasionally, they pull it all together, as on the ominous opener "Airportman" and the darkly seductive "Suspicion," but they stretch their capacities to the breaking point nearly as often, as on the Pet Sounds pastiche "At My Most Beautiful," which comes off as second-rate High Llamas. Most of Up, however, falls in between those two extremes, winding up as self-consciously moody, down-tempo songs that fail to make an impression because they either don't take enough chances or they fail to speak directly -- they are simply well-crafted tracks that are easy to admire, but hard to love. Ultimately, that is what distinguishes this new incarnation of R.E.M.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine