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Around the Sun
Warner Brothers, 2004
Posted: October 14,
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,
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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