Remember the days when Michael Stipe’s lyrics made no sense at all (or at least only to him) and it didn’t really matter because he just mumbled them anyway? Sometimes I long for those days, the days of “what noisy cats are we, girl and dog he bore his cross.” That distinct first phase of their career, on the indie I.R.S. label, was their most critically acclaimed, from the birth of college rock on Murmur to the near explosion of Document. Their second phase however, the one when Bill Berry was still in the band during their first five albums on major label Warner Brothers, had more than its share of great moments. Between the majesty of “Orange Crush” and the tenderness of “You Are the Everything” to the underappreciated New Adventures in Hi-Fi, R.E.M. had their biggest commercial successes. After the band became a trio it seemed they were on the decline. I was preparing myself to come to grips that the dream was over, that R.E.M.’s best days were indeed behind them. While some might still make that assertion, the band’s latest album, Around the Sun has pleasantly surprised me.
The clear annunciated lyrics of “Leaving New York,” the album’s first single, starts the album and resembles a slowed down version of “Man in the Moon.” It’s radio friendly, catchy, and just a little ambiguous. The electronic drums that replace Bill Berry for the song “Electron Blue” are somewhat sterile, but they manage to work it out with sparingly used guitar, piano, and bass. Then came the song that I most feared on the album.
I feared “The Outsiders,” not because of possible references to a young adult novel (of which there are none), nor because of its political nature, I feared it because it marked the second time the band collaborated with a rapper. Out of Time‘s “Radio Song,” which featured KRS-One, was, in my eyes and ears, an abject failure, an entirely skippable song on an otherwise good record. (For the record, I always skip “Shiny Happy People” too). No disrespect to the `Philosopher’ — I love Boogie Down Productions, especially “My Philosophy.” But the combo of the band and rapper, singing about bad radio seemed both inane and ironic. On “The Outsiders,” which features guest rapper Q-Tip, the subject is politics. The subject matter plus the tone of the song and the talent of the `Abstract’ vault this song much higher than the former attempt at synergy. Whereas the first seemed like abject whining, the second smacks of unity amongst peoples protesting the direction of this country. Q-Tip’s chant of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I am not afraid” is powerful and heartfelt.
“Make It All Okay” is classic seventies glory. And no, I don’t mean `Freedom Rock’ or even disco. The song is reminiscent of Billy Joel, most specifically the refrain of “Didn’t you now, didn’t you” which recalls “She’s got a way…Don’t know what it is” from “She’s Got a Way.” An alternate version of the anti-Bush “Final Straw” appeared on Future Soundtrack for America and is easily one of the best songs on the album mixing two distinct former styles of the band. There is an early I.R.S. jangle-vibe throughout, combines with a dark and direct style found on Automatic for the People. The group captures a Brian Wilson / Beatles vibe with “Wanderlust” and though it sounds un-R.E.M.-like, it could represent a fun new direction for the group who usually experiments with one song an album. Other standout songs include the Wilco-sounding “Aftermath” and the `should have been a Morrissey song’ “The Worst Joke Ever.”
True, there are a few songs that aren’t among R.E.M.’s more shining moments, such as “The Ascent of Man,” (If you can get through the `yeah yeah yeah’ refrains, then it’s not altogether terrible), but for the most part, the Beatles influences abound, as in the title track, the songs are tighter, and the group more focused. Usual contributor Scott McCaughey returns for `extra musician’ duty, as does former Posie Ken Stringfellow. McCaughey’s appearance would account for the Wilco likenesses while Stringfellow might have had something to do with a more sixties feel. My only complaints, other than a few weak songs, have to do with the fact that the musicians seem nonexistent. There is rare, if any, backing vocals by Mike Mills, nor are there any discernable highlights of Buck’s guitar or Mills’ bassline. This could easily have been a solo Stipe record and maybe it should have been.
I wouldn’t say that Around the Sun is R.E.M.’s best album since `insert album name here,’ but it is a step out of the valley that was their last two releases. Maybe it was a kick in the tush by U2 who got back on track in a big way with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, or maybe it was the motivation provided by the current administration which inspired the band, but either way, all we can hope is that R.E.M. continues in this vein with good songwriting and solid albums. I don’t know if it’s worth the trade off for four more years with the guy who is `workin’ hard,’ but there is at least a small sliver of silver lining.
R.E.M.- Automatic for the People
Live- Throwing Copper
Bruce Springsteen – The Rising