Every REM album since 1994's disappointing Monster has been described by one critic or another as a 'return to form'. Personally, I'm not convinced that the band are capable of making another album as good as Reckoning or Automatic For The People; when you've been writing and playing music together for several decades, it must be difficult to stumble upon exceptional new ideas. This needn't be a problem, though; a second-rate REM single is still a hell of a lot better than anything most other guitar bands can conjure up, as 'UBerlin' amply demonstrates.
It's a good song, which may not be immediately appreciable because we've become so accustomed to the band's strengths. The pretty, jangling guitar, the touching, slightly desperate vocals, the bittersweet mood and moving melodies; all of this will be familiar to every listener. These are, after all, elements which were already in place on early songs like 'Radio Free Europe'. It's worth taking a mental step back though, to stop listening to 'Uberlin' as the new REM single and imagine that it's a song by an up-and-coming band. Then it'll hit you: how good the group are at what they do, the extent to which they've honed their craft over the years. Michael Stipe, for instance, is somehow able to effortlessly throw together a few enigmatic lyrical fragments and create something affecting, and the mood he conjures through lines like 'Hey now, take your pills' is heightened by Peter Buck's gentle, subtle guitar work.
'UBerlin' doesn't come close to hitting the heights of 'Pretty Persuasion' or 'Losing My Religion', but so what? It's still an excellent track. REM don't need to hit the peaks they touched in the eighties and early nineties in order to be a very good band.