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updated 11/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1998 01:00AM

R.E.M. (Warner Bros.)

Album of the week

With his opaque imagery and mumbled vocals, Michael Stipe confounds fans even as he delights them. Now, on this mesmerizing album, the band's 13th—and their first since drummer Bill Berry's departure last fall—Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck have done the unthinkable: They've provided a lyric sheet. Yet even with the words written in black and white, the meaning of these compelling but impressionistic tunes remains elusive. The opening cut, "Airport Man," is laced, as most of the 14 tracks are, with odd sonic effects (a radical departure from R.E.M.'s jangly, low-tech sound). Stipe intones scattered, disembodied phrases over a fuzzy, pulsating backing track. On "Lotus," one of the few up-tempo cuts, the band seems to pay homage to Beck's Odelay, and "Hope" is a weird takeoff on Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" ("You want to trust the doctors/ Their procedure is the best/ But the last try was a failure and the intern was a mess").

Bottom Line: intriguing album that rewards repeated listening

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