R.E.M. - Around The Sun
Mike Mantin 04/10/2004
It's been 12 years since the release of Automatic For The People, R.E.M.'s seminal, career-high classic. Since then, there's been 5 albums: none of them awful but all of them containing filler and- in some cases- crushing disappointment. They are now wheeling out a decent album every 3 years rather than a stone-cold classic every 8 months like in the late-'80s Golden Age. So- with 12 albums under their belt and the towel surely to thrown in sometime soon (they'll be pushing 50 in a couple of years), it's up to this last plea for attention to remind us they can be America's Biggest Band again.
The results of three years away from recording with only a Greatest Hits to remind us they haven't quietly passed away into Stadium Rock Heaven? Sadly, it's another patchy one. There's an array of achingly beautiful winners that reinforce your respect for Stipe's songwriting, but also lazy lyrics ("Our past has been rewritten and you threw away the pen") and no tunes as gripping as even the lows from their classic albums. It's not a poor album by any means, it's just that R.E.M. seem to have run out of earth-shattering ideas that used to be the foundation of their finest songs. Sure, just like Bruce Springsteen and (surprisingly) Green Day, R.E.M. still know the power of song in influencing political decisions. Final Straw was released last year as a protest song through their generous website and contains lyrics like, "I don't believe that two wrongs don't make a right/If the world was filled with the likes of you then I'm putting up a fight". But its effect is dwindled slightly because the song itself is so dreary. Sadly, that's what you're sometimes getting: a good quarter of Around The Sun is the sound of a band hopelessly trying to rewrite Automatic For The People.
R.E.M. still exist because they are incapable of making a bad album. Like Up had At My Most Beautiful and Daysleeper and Reveal had the joyous Imitation Of Life, Around The Sun possesses a number of tracks that remind you that Michael Stipe still has the capability of writing a stadium-filling but still spine-tingling beauty, even if it's not a whole album of them like twelve years ago. Thus, we get I Wanted To Be Wrong: an intimate ballad backed by luscious strings. There's also Leaving New York: a love song (to the city?) with a subtle tune that grows more and more into a favourite with every listen. But the last four tracks are instantly forgettable- for the first time in 13 albums, listeners will just stop caring about Stipe's often delicately beautiful poetry because the music backing it is so irritatingly samey. There's a word you'd never expect to see in an R.E.M. review.
R.E.M. now fail to make sense. It's a shame for the former most powerful and unpredictable band in the world. Their potential anti-Bush anthems are pushed aside by the listener in favour of glimmers of melodic beauty. There's more trudging MOR that scuppers the feel of songs that suggest they're still alt-rock heroes. R.E.M. can no longer be leading voices in the Screw Bush Revolution and that's just wrong. Their early work was praised for being confusing and unsettling. 21 years on, though, these qualities now just bring disappointment.