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Invisible Sun

 

R.E.M.: Around the Sun

Warner Brothers, 2004

Rating: 2.8

 

 

Posted: October 14, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

No moment on Around the Sun, R.E.M.'s 13th studio album (and its third without drummer and founding member Bill Berry), is more emblematic of the record's cold, sterile feel than the end of "The Outsiders." After Michael Stipe finishes singing vague lyrics that seem to be about imminent change in a personal relationship, the rapper Q-Tip contributes a final verse that feels arbitrarily tacked onto the end of the song, grafted on with the aid of ProTools. It never sounds like he's in the same room with Stipe, in contrast to the more energetic guest rap KRS-One contributed to "Radio Song" (from 1991's Out of Time).

That feel permeates Around the Sun; it's an album coated in mellow, muted tones that aim for the languid atmospherics of, say, Air, but instead achieve a state of lite-rock somnambulism. It builds on the contemplative vibe of 2001's numbingly pretty Reveal, but never achieves that record's intermittent warmth -- and apparently never stops to consider whether its audience particularly wants more of that album's gauzy production, which intermittently came across as aural wallpaper.

One of R.E.M.'s most appealing traits has always been its inscrutability, the sense that the band was following its own adventurous muse, and the chief benefit of that has always been those moments where that process resulted in magnetic, compelling and beguiling pop music. But Around the Sun is inscrutable for a different reason: It's hard to figure out how R.E.M. sees itself in 2004; whether it has a clear idea of where it wants to go, musically, or even whether it realizes that it's making music that's far removed from the forward-thinking ambition that defined its sound as late as 1996's underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

Certainly, there are some decent -- even good -- songs here, like the opening "Leaving New York," a serviceably melodic single about the distasteful notion of breaking off a relationship in order to avoid being dumped ("It's easier to leave than to be left behind / Leaving was never my proud," Stipe sings, exhibiting a hint of his old language-abusing self). "Electron Blue" and "Aftermath" both also offer agreeable moments. But they're the kind of songs meant to break up the flow of an album, not establish a lushly unimaginative one. The best they achieve here is that they counterbalance more leaden tracks like the limp "Final Straw" and "The Worst Joke Ever," which sports a maddeningly non-catchy chorus.

And oddly enough, two of the more listenable numbers here address the notion, however unintentionally, of R.E.M.'s waning artistic powers. On the insinuating "I Wanted to be Wrong," Stipe sings "Everyone is humming a song / That I don't understand... Mythology's seductive and it turned a trick on me." One can't help but recall a time when Stipe was a master at getting people to hum songs that they didn't fully understand; that idea seems entirely foreign to him now. On the agreeable (if musically vacant) "Wanderlust," he sings "I'm searching for a greatness... I want it to be brilliant / I want it to be sweet." It feels churlish to point out that Around the Sun falls short of those goals; moreover, it doesn't express any kind of musical wanderlust whatsoever.

Its sporadic pockets of accessibility aside, it's difficult to listen to Around the Sun without hearing it as a holding pattern, or worse, a piece of product released simply to keep the R.E.M. brand out among the public. If Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills no longer feel the creative spark that once defined the band, perhaps they should heed Q-Tip's advice. On "The Outsiders," he raps about walking away "when every muscle says to stay." Maybe that's a notion worth considering.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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