Download “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” for its piano riff. Download “New Test Leper” for sounding like it might’ve been able to replace one of the weaker songs off Automatic for the People; the counterpoint in the choruses is lovely. And download “Electrolite” where the band throw absolutely everything they have including a decent melody, backing vocals, strings, another good piano riff and “So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”-like percussion and in the hopes that you’ll enjoy at least one of them; it works, vaguely. I purposely left out the Patti Smith-aided “E-Bow the Letter” because it sounds like a castrated version of Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” straight down to the spoken word verses, the barely sung and dueted hook and smokey atmosphere, but missing the vocal sample that made “Bonnie and Clyde” so wonderful. “Dreaming of Maria Callas, whoever she is” is a good line, but Michael Stipe isn’t and was never a poet. Patti Smith was, a long time ago.
The rest of this album sucks, with a bunch of songs of mid-tempo and familiar chord progressions that are all too long and are mixed horribly like they were b-sides to Monster (and why wouldn’t they sound like that; they were recorded live during the Monster tour). They throw in an instrumental (“Zither”) to remind us that they’re still R.E.M. except these instrumentals seem to get worse and worse with each release and “Leave” might be the worst thing in their discography; I’ll defer to CapnMarvel who takes it down beautifully, “No single noise reminds me more of the unfortunate Electronica craze of 1996 than this clarion call of vomitessent glow-stick, thrift-shop tee, tinted-glasses techno-slaver.” For people who want to believe that R.E.M. were still a great band in the 90s, for people who are impressed by size (at 65 minutes, this is the longest R.E.M. album by a mile) and for people who are impressed by loudness.