It was really just by chance that I 'discovered' Discoverer (apologies for the major pun). I came home from school, switched on the computer and checked out R.E.M. HQ on the off chance there might be some new info about the album. Little did I know at the time of the sonic powerhouse that awaited me...
Perhaps I'm laying on the praise a little too heavily here, but Discoverer is still a rocking tune, by any means. Buck's overdriven guitars, panned to the max, give the track an ambience that is complemented by Mike Mills' frankly eerie bass and Bill Rielfin's minimalist drums (at least, I assume it's Bill - if anyone can confirm this it would be much appreciated).
Then Michael Stipe comes in. At first listen I didn't like his vocal approach, and I admit that freely. The chorus sounded particularly dire - the sound coming from his throat was more like shouting than singing at times, and when it came to the last line "Noooooow!" was more like a wail than a note. But it would seem the vocals here were somewhat of an acquired taste, because with each listen I found myself enjoying the track more and more, and my opinion of Stipe's vocals turned from awful to awesome overnight.
On the whole, I was glad they hadn't taken too much of a leap from Accelerate, as that was the album that got me hooked on them in the first place. But they have added elements from their previous albums too. Whilst Accelerate was a short, fast, politically-charged attack, Discoverer lowers the tempo slightly, and every so often you notice things that eluded you on your previous listen, much like R.E.M.'s early albums.
I have only one complaint about this song, and that is the absence of Mills' excellent vocal harmonies. One of the reasons I didn't like Around the Sun was because his vocals were mixed so low that they may as well not be there at all. On Discoverer, he's louder, but he's just singing in unison with Michael. I guess it's better than nothing at all, but I would have liked him to be a bit more... there.
Thankfully, I can't say the same about It Happened Today, which I can essentially describe as a two-minute song with a two-minute vocal jam at the end. And that, my friends, is why I like it so much.
The chord progression used by Peter Buck in the song is a standard I-V-vi-IV, for those who play an instrument, but the melody is interesting enough and the lyrics are astute, for want of a better word. Considering the clever word choice here (who on earth would think of putting "allegory" in a song? I know I wouldn't), the chorus seems a little odd when taken out of the context of the music:
It happened today, hooray, hooray,
It happened, hip, hip hooray.
See what I mean? But when Stipe and Mills are singing as well as they are, it doesn't matter anyway. Speaking of singers, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Hidden Cameras' Joel Gibb make guest appearances on the track, adding extra counter melodies and turning this song into something special. I recall someone saying he was "Vedder-deaf" when listening to this, but he is definitely there - he's singing higher than Stipe and lower than Mills, and he applies his own unique style which can be heard throughout and quite audibly at the end. As for Joel Gibb, I had never heard him prior to this, so I'm not sure which voice is his - I'm guessing, but I think it may be the falsetto you can hear sometimes on the near right pan.
So, my overall impression? That this may just be the best R.E.M. album yet, if things continue the way they're going. Judging by these songs and the trailer, I can find no fault in the direction they have decided to move in. I've seen a lot of people criticise Michael Stipe's lyrics on the new album, calling them "uninspiring" and just plain "boring", but I don't mind, really. They may not be his best, but it's the music that matters most, and it's the music that we'll still be playing a whole year after the album comes out this March!