first, that word "relevant".... REM are old. old, old, old. in 2011, there are loads of young people with fresh ideas that are setting the musical agenda on their own terms, and REM can't deal in relevance any more than Paul McCartney could in 1992. they can have the odd hit here and there
that doesn't mean they can't be good - Sonic Youth are the same age and still make challenging, beautiful, exciting, thoughtful music. other people will have their own favourites - but none of them will be on the vanguard 30 years in.
second thing: i'd agree that michael is the most patchy on this album - lyrically he doesn't always turn up, and vocally not all the performances are up to scratch. i would agree that he's been in decline as a lyricist since Reveal. sometimes (mine smell like honey, discoverer) the music is exciting but the songs feel incomplete. other times the songs (walk it back, every day...) tread a fine line between pure corn and simple beauty (REM have been playing that game for a while - see Be Mine, Everybody Hurts, At My Most Beautiful).
finally - some sound like non-songs but have more going on than you think at first. A_A_A_A_ is a great example of a good song disguised as a stupid song. IHT i think is interesting - it's mix of strangely detached, repressed sentiment, and that absolute sonic bliss that only REM can generate. that kind of juxtaposition and contrivance is a fairly core REM virtue.
wouldnt Blue have been better without Patti? then it would have been a sort of abstract monster thing... again, very detached.
some songs: Uberlin, Oh My Heart, Marlon Brando, i will take to the grave.
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