R.E.M. on “Reveal”
Going for Baroque
Mar 15, 2017 Issue # 59 - 15th Anniversary
Find It At: AMAZON
R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck has always been a remarkably candid and garrulous interview subject. Given that he's done few interviews since R.E.M.'s dissolution (you can literally count them on one hand), Under the Radar was thrilled that that he was game to discuss the band's largely overlooked 2001 orchestral-rock masterpiece, Reveal.
It was surprising to find out that Buck, who favors ragged albums recorded quickly, was a fervent champion of the epicurean, rather labored-over Reveal, at least according to the band's manager Bertis Downs, who enthused over Buck's love of the album. Buck immediately repudiated that claim. "I don't, really," he laughs. "I'm proud of pretty much everything I've done, and when we finished the record I thought it was pretty good, and now that R.E.M.'s over and you get a chance to look at how everything went from this place to that place, it's kind of an interesting little [place] we went down. It has a Jimmy Webb and Glenn Campbell vibe with a Krautrock filter, with The Beach Boys too, who were always in our DNA."
Buck does have an affinity for many of the tracks, particularly the deep cuts, such as "Saturn Return," with it's layered thunderstorm-electrified feedback undergirding a gorgeous piano line and some of frontman Michael Stipe's finest lyrics, which transform faux mysticism into something dark; an eerie, foreboding lament echoing the song's dissonance. Then there's "Chorus and the Ring," which lyrically, took on a darker turn belying the Celtic folk stomp of the music, becoming Stipe's elegy to both his friend Kurt Cobain and the author William S. Burroughs. Both were written in decidedly off-the-cuff manners.
"'Saturn Return' is one I don't have a lot of lived-in time with," says Buck. "It was when I was teaching myself keyboards and I wrote it on piano and we just did this rumble through it in our rehearsal studio on 16-track, and we never played it again. And [producer] Pat McCarthy heard it and he said, 'That's just great.' Mike [Mills] was playing these insane baselines, and Joey [Waronker, session and live drummer] was going in and out of all kinds of styles...and Ken [Stringfellow, session and live keyboardist] did this Sonic Youth sort of bass line. He was not playing my chords at all on there, which made it more interesting."
"Chorus in the Ring" had a similarly spontaneous provenance, according to Buck. "I just started playing this draggy thing and we played it at half the time, and if you listen to the tape, Mike plays every chord change a quarter beat behind because he doesn't know the chord change. He's playing offbeat, but he has a great ear. Joey was playing something like gas cans," he laughs. "So Pat listened to it later, and said, 'That's great,' and Michael really liked it too, and there were very few overdubs. It was something we played literally once."
The album's lead single "Imitation of Life" wasn't a hit in the U.S., but did chart highly all over the rest of the world. "We were playing somewhere in Europe," Buck remembers, "and someone came up to us after our main set and said, 'How can you not play 'Imitation of Life?' So we did, and the crowd just went nuts. The song was number one in Japan and a huge hit almost everywhere. I had no idea."
Buck's feelings about the lukewarm reception to the album initially, especially in the U.S., are predictably pragmatic. "My feeling is always that do whatever work you do and sometimes it strikes people, and sometimes it doesn't. Not anyone. Not Prince, not Paul McCartney, not Dylan." Buck proceeds to wax rhapsodic on under appreciated albums by all of the aforementioned, indicating just what a music geek he is, with a collection numbering in the tens of thousands.
"It's all okay," Buck continues. "In America, we'd been around for a long time, and maybe it wasn't our time to be in the public eye, and that's fine. We never cared about sales, and I'm proud of the album, and I hope people discover it for free on Spotify or wherever they hear music now and maybe like it."
[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Best of 2016 / 15th Anniversary Issue (January/February/March 2017). This is its debut online. The issue came out in late December 2016 and partially celebrated the 15th anniversary of Under the Radar's first issue, which came out in December 2001, and thus featured articles on albums that also came out in 2001.]
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