Editor's note: On the comedy podcast "R U Talkin' R.E.M. RE: ME?", hosts Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott dive deep into the legendary Athens band's discography. Local superfan Tim Kelly is reviewing the podcast for Flagpole.
“I have a controversial opinion about this album: I like it a lot.” — Scott on Reveal
“If this isn’t a hit, I don’t know what the problem is.” — Adam on “Imitation of Life”
Sharp-eyed readers of these reviews may have deduced that I am a big fan of R.E.M. I’m fully aware that I lack any real objectivity about the band, its catalog and even some of their haircuts. So it will come as no shock that I was beating the drum hard for Reveal when it was released in May 2001.
R.E.M., despite the departure of Bill Berry and the lukewarm reaction from the mainstream to its previous album, was still one of the biggest bands in the world. But, much like Adam demanding more admiration from his friends for Up, I seemed to be fighting R.E.M. battles at every bar, restaurant and ball game I went to. “R.E.M. is still here and just as great as ever!” I would loudly yell to almost every person that came within earshot after a beer or three.
Reveal also happened to be released one month after my wife Carrie and I were officially engaged, and one month before another sweat-drenched Georgia summer kicked in. Scott and Adam do a great job of conveying the “feel” of this album—bright, warm and breezy, it just “feels like summer.”
“Imitation of Life” became the song played and repeated many times over courtesy of Carrie’s giant 100-disc, trunk-installed CD changer—Scott is right, streaming just doesn’t feel or sound the same—as she and I took the long drive over and over again to Savannah to visit her family and make preparations for our wedding there in December. The album made those drives a joy, and as far as I knew, “Imitation of Life” was the song of the summer, and Reveal was widely loved.
Then, I noticed something: No one else seemed to be talking about the record or the incredible and endlessly rewatchable video for “Imitation of Life.” What was everyone doing? What were they listening to?! I’d ask friends and co-workers if they bought the album, and it was as if they were in a fog. “Oh yeah, I think I knew they put out a new record—is it any good?”
“YES, IT IS VERY GOOD,” I would angrily reply, and then play them “Imitation of Life,” which, of course, they loved—and that was it. For some reason, this record lacked object permanence. People fell in love with “The Lifting” and “All the Way to Reno” when I would play them, but as soon as I left their eyeline—poof, it vanished. Adam seems to have shared my pain, particularly for the reception to “Imitation of Life”—one of the catchiest, ear-wormiest songs in the entire R.E.M. catalog. Why did we take this so personally? Why did I care? If this wasn’t a hit, what did R.E.M. need to do?!
Looking back now, I can begin to understand. I found R.E.M. over 10 years before—right as the band was riding up the wave and about to hit the heights of worldwide stardom—and for those 10 years, it was MY favorite band that everyone loved. I could bring up that one part where Stipe laughs in “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” and know that people understood what I was talking about. But tastes and trends change—sometimes for NO GOOD REASON (still bitter)—and by 2001, the masses had moved on.
And you know what? It was fine. Nothing really changed. R.E.M. released a fantastic album that I still listen to regularly. It gave us an all-timer of a pop song with a video that has to rank among the greats. (Watch it below and you’ll see.) And a lot of other people decided to listen to worse music. (OK, so maybe I’m not ALL the way over it.) For someone like me, who never knew of R.E.M. as anything other than one of the most recognizable bands on the planet, it was a shock.
But it’s cool—the 10 years following Reveal would produce some of my favorite songs and favorite memories of the band. Today when I hear Reveal, I instantly think of the year I was married, of long car rides through small towns near Savannah and of summers in Athens in the days after college but well before kids.
So, as another hot August in Athens begins to give way to fall, let’s raise a glass to Reveal, R.E.M.’s beautiful album for every summer.
Stone Cold Classics:
"Imitation of Life": One of R.E.M.’s most underrated songs AND its best video. For a great recap on how it was made, check this out.
"All the Way to Reno": I love the pure joy, the smiles on their faces in this video. It always makes me happy.