I mentioned this when we first began this journey through the discography of R.E.M., but with some exceptions this is me coming to the work of a critically acclaimed and popular band for the first time. I have hindsight and cultural osmosis that gives me a different perspective, but my R.E.M. story was one of coming to a catalogue with only one major reference point (Automatic for the People) and experiencing it with both freshness and retrospection. Throughout my crash course I have experienced their amazing origins as the forbearers of so much independent music today, their evolution into populism without giving up their integrity, and the experimentations that whether I liked them or was mixed seemed to be the clear progression of a band with a goal. In a matter of two weeks I would call myself, without question, an R.E.M. fan.
So as a fan, today I get to experience the disappointment of Around the Sun. And I use that word disappointment with as much intent as possible. A part of me wants to tell you that I hate this record, because that would give some material to write about, and it would imply that the record had some interesting things in it to rile me up. I can’t, though. It’s too boring to hate. It is here that every issue with R.E.M. in the post-Berry period finally builds up and spurts out. Up is somewhat too long, but makes up for that with experimentation and a true emotional core. Reveal had more mediocre material and a mix that seemed to forget that Mike Mills exists, but it had an aesthetic that was both committed and an interesting change of pace.
But Around the Sun is the first album where, if there is some overall intent, it’s not very compelling not even that noticeable. I’ve put big stock in this “each album reacts to other” idea and, hey, maybe that was just a pet theory and it didn’t have much substance behind it. But even then I would say that if Reveal was the sunny album, then Around the Sun is the album just spinning around that light with nothing to do. There is occasionally a good song in this album, but everything else is elongated to the point of tedium. Fifty six minutes? Did it really need to be this long?
It’s almost as if the front cover of the band blurred is some kind of twisted joke on its own homogeny. If there was one key difference is that there is more acoustic guitar, adding a more prominent natural component to a style that was so defined by synthesisers in the last record. But that is because most of these songs are mid-tempo ballads, as what it was on Automatic for the People. Perhaps you could argue in the post-Berry environment the band saw these albums as trilogy in the same way of the environment change when they moved to Warner Bros: Up is Green, getting used to a new aesthetic; Reveal is Out of Time, building upon that aesthetic with a new sense of optimism, and Around the Sun is the Automatic for the People, where they felt they were finally used to that style and would make the inspirational record with the acoustic guitars. But that last one is reeeeeeally stretching. Automatic for the People is the best record the band made. Around the Sun is the worst.
But those are both the popular opinions, and I would rather not want to be predictable in my choices. In fact,as I didn’t read much going into this album, when I first heard “Leaving New York” I thought I would end up having a contrarian point of view, because I would happily call this song good. The piano melody is lovely, especially when combined with sustained organs and guitar notes from Buck that have an odd but complementary level of suspense. It does have some of the simplest lyrics that Stipe has ever written, but his “E-Bow the Letter” makes this love letter to the city of New York work, and lines like “i love you, forever (it’s pulling me apart)” have the same relationship with each other as the piano/guitar dynamic. It works better that other famous 80’s band’s love song to New York, anyway.
The “what does everyone dislike about this album?” alarm kept ringing when I also liked “Electron Blue”. It sounds like some strange outtake from the spacier elements of Reveal, with airy echoing vocals matching the light sensations of the synths, appegiated guitars and quiet drum loops. It’s meant to be about a strange kind of hallucinogenic drug composed of light, and the music certainly fits that idea. This makes the plainness of the language clash with more psychedelic moments to create uplifting passages “adventure has laid its claim on you/it’s all you want to do/you, you know where to run/you run electron blue” that embrace the corny and weird to an effect that just works for me.
So, it’s been going good so far? Then we get to “The Outsiders” and the quality dips, but not to a disliking level yet. It has far too quiet a production, but the guitar work is nice, the more blooping sounds of synthesiser provide a nice atmosphere, and I tend to like when R.E.M. embrace more hip-hop oriented drums. Fair enough, “Where will this lead us? I’m scared of the storm./The Outsiders are gathering. A new day is born” is the most cliché chorus that Stipe has written to date, but at only three minutes it’s a nice short…Q-Tip, what are you doing here? I mean it’s great that you’re here and all, but this verse is kinda sleepy – not one of your best – and the song seemed to have a logical endpoint and…oh you’re gone. OK. Couldn’t you stay to produce rest of the record, at least?
Yes, that was Q-Tipping point for this album’s overall quality (sorry). After that we get “Make It All Okay”, and songs like this are why we have the descriptor saccharine. The light piano with limp acoustic guitar, and occasional electric yelps, feels like something some bloated soft rock act would play. Or maybe something for a man like Scott Stapp to be singing on, as even if the “Jesus loves me fine” line is meant to be played a bit ironically. this is Christian Rock. This is maybe the first time I thought a song by R.E.M. was insincere, with Stipe essentially writing break-up song lyrics, and not Blood on the Tracks or Rumours, but lyrics I could expect form literally anyone.
On Reveal the political anthem “The Chorus and the Ring” was pretty abstract. “Final Straw” is definitely more obvious, with that acoustic guitar in the country/folk mode of many a political song. 2004 was of course a very political time, with the American government having launched a war in Iraq under false pretences. Now, I’m a woolly liberal who hates the policies of the George Bush administration about as much as you’re expecting, maybe even more so. But me agreeing with the general expression of this song doesn’t change the fact it is surprisingly lifeless. Maybe it wouldn’t have fit with the rest album, but Stipe’s vocals could have done with, if not anger, then at least frustration. Maybe the intention was that the impotence of the voice would match the feeling of political helplessness. It’s a feeling I certainly understand. But this song doesn’t make that compelling.
“I Wanted To Be Wrong” at least does a little better with what sounds like similar subject matter. For one thing the synth strings and other electronics make this song much prettier, and the backing vocals suggest that the Beach Boy’s influence has not entirely gone away. And lines from Stipe like “the rodeo is staged, gold circle goat-ropers and clowns./ a rumble in the third act, tie ’em up and burn ’em down” are a hell of a lot more evocative. But it still could have benefitted from being a little shorter.
Then, all of a sudden, the album has a little life breathed back into it with “Wanderlust”. The marching rhythms of the drums and guitars are bouncy, and more complex than the rest of the album, the fills remind me a little of the Byrds influence that the band used to be inspired by and, hey, I can actually hear the bass! Kinda. And Stipe’s performance as a result has a lot more energy, to the point that he can sell lines like “I want to kiss the astronauts/when they salute to me me me me” in such a way that I embrace its silliness rather than be put off by it. It’s at this point I notice that at this point this kind of song would usually signal the end of the first act. This is the first R.E.M. album not to have clearly defined side. Maybe that tells us something about its direction.
Unfortunately we are back to mediocrity with “Boy in the Well”. It is mostly just an acoustic guitar doing its acoustic guitar thing, only occasionally balanced with some supporting instruments in the second verses. It certainly makes the sinking feeling that Stipe is singing about feel more palpable. But its lines like “A rousing cheer for the boy in the well” that make me realise, probably longer than it should have, that Around the Sun is trying to be the “life affirming” album. And most “life affirming” art makes me lose the will to live.
Of all the singles from this album, “Aftermath” is definitely one of them. It is structured very much like the single in ABABACB manner. That’s not always a bad thing of course, in fact my favourites song probably follow this structure – from this band even – but the fact this among the most mediocre that the band has released doesn’t help its case. The guitar is lost in the piano drenched mix, the synth tones are kind of odd and needlessly psychedelic, Stipe’s lyrics of “and your still alive” get repetetive and as some of the only natural drumming on the album, this is simply fine. Why am I still talking about this, again?
Well, at least “High Speed Train” is more interesting to talk about song wise. Not great, you know, but interesting. It returns to the kind of suspense filled guitar lines that “Leaving New York” was also filled with, the electronics create a strange atmosphere and the acoustic guitars sound vaguely Spanish. It doesn’t really sound like it should be on this album, but it’s a nice change of pace; if I was a train myself in a dark winter night I can imagine myself putting this song on. Stipe doesn’t seem to have many lyrics to carry this though, but the central sentence “I jump on a high speed train” is almost evocative enough to keep the song going.
The next song is called “The Worst Joke Ever”, which is one of those cases where I wonder if the band know how bad their album is and are making themselves open to jokes by critics. Fortunately, I guess, it’s not the worst song on the album. It isn’t any good, but the clashing acoustic guitar notes in the introduction and the marimba/bell sounds make this have a unique texture to it at least. But although I won’t go for the easy jokes with the lyrics, I will say that Stipe’s strained voice here doesn’t help to make those punchlines land.
“The Accent of Man” is maybe the most frustrating song on the record, because part of me thinks there is a nice anthem in this. Give this to that other famous 80’s band, and I think they could have made something out of this in the same period. But instead Stipe’s “yeaahs” just do not carry the strength needed to pull off a sweeping chorus like this. The weak guitars and backing vocals that sound straight out of the demo tape certainly don’t help his case, but the occasional “sitar” sounds and the central subject of evolution do sound like they could be the basis for a great inspiration album. This isn’t it, though.
At the very least, I think the title track ends the album well. It is more folky and jangle pop than the rest of the album, but both Buck’s and Mill’s guitars here create a nice little oasis after some of the stuff prior. The strange string section and bright pianos help create that little island, and Stipe’s lyrics which are as sunny as anything on Reveal all merge together to create a lovely song, not lovely enough though to let you forget what a slog getting there was.
It has dawned on me; this is the first R.E.M album which named the album after one of the songs on the album. I consider this indicative of the inspiration this record was lacking.
This album is bad. I’m actually amazed that I got so many words out of this, since reviewing a lot of the music on here was like reviewing white noise. If it is not the worst album we have reviewed on this site, it is certainly the most tedious to listen to. It sounds like the band, after all they could sustain in the post-Berry era, had finally lost their energy. Thankfully, the band recognised people’s disappointment, and would want to prove with the next record that they still had some energy in them…
What did you think though?
R.E.M Album Rankings
- Automatic for the People
- Lifes Rich Pageant
- New Adventures in Hi-Fi
- Fables of the Reconstruction
- Chronic Town (EP)
- Out of Time
- Dead Letter Office
- Around the Sun