Album Review: R.E.M. — Around the Sun (Part 1 of 2)

Artists evolve; that’s what they do. Unless they’re outliers (Oasis inevitably comes to mind as the exception that proves the rule), the music they make at the start of their career may well not have much in common with their later output. Again citing obvious examples, “Revolution 9” (or “It’s All Too Much,” for that matter) doesn’t sound at all like “Love Me Do” or “Don’t Bother Me.” And the spaces of time between those songs’ creation were and six and four years, respectively.

Inevitably following on from that reality, it’s not at all a given that the audience that appreciated the early material will have hung on to be fans of the later music. Pop music history is full of tales of artists who lost their local hardcore following once they made the big time (The Doors certainly experienced this, though they made up for any losses with wider popularity. But the point remains.)

Mentioning this is by way of a bit of context for this review. Growing up in metro Atlanta, I was an early fan of R.E.M. Based as they were just up the road in Athens (an hour’s drive), R.E.M. was something of a local group. They played often around town. Even offstage, I encountered the band members here and there at places like 688. A fond memory is road-tripping to Athens for a free concert by the band, one in which they tested out their brand-new PA system before hitting the road in support of their then-latest, Fables of the Reconstruction.

A serious fan of R.E.M.’s music during their years on I.R.S. Records, I enthusiastically followed every new release from the group. I recall being quite struck on an extended visit to London in 1991 when the band’s new album Out of Time seemed to be playing everywhere. This “local” band I so admired was providing the soundtrack to my month in England! They had reached peak popularity, and while their sound had changed, the foundational values that brought them praise were intact.

A late-adopter when it came to compact discs, I was disappointed from the get-go when I was “forced” to buy 1994’s Monster on CD. Truth be told, the music on that album was my first brush with disappointment where R.E.M. itself was concerned. I didn’t care for the sound of the record; with loud guitars and vocals submerged in the mix it might have pleased fans of grunge, but I wasn’t (and still am not) one of those.

New Adventures in Hi Fi left me cold as well, and with my attentions turning for a time away from music (starting a business, young kids, etc.) I pretty much lost interest in the group’s subsequent output. Honestly, I might well have liked it, but I simply didn’t hear it.

Until now. Thanks to a reissue project by Craft Recordings, two of R.E.M.’s late-late-period albums are being released on vinyl. This presented me with my first-ever opportunity to give a proper listen to 2004’s Around the Sun. As Discogs notes, there was a vinyl release of that album in ‘04, but I had never seen a copy. And I wouldn’t have been inclined to pay the steep price for one (they currently change hands for around $80).

So here we are. Over the years I had acquired a vague sense that the post I.R.S. albums weren’t as highly regarded as those early ones, and I knew for sure that they were different. Drummer Bill Berry left the group in 1997, and additional members (or maybe quasi-members) like Scott McCaughey, Ken Stringfellow, Bill Rieflin, Peter Holsapple and so on – great as each of them certainly is – couldn’t help but contribute to creating a different character.

All those qualifiers are, I suppose, a long-winded way of saying that going in, my expectations with regard to Around the Sun were somewhat modest.

My song-by-song take on R.E.M.’s 13th studio release is here.