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

Continued from Part One

Picking up after my last post’s lengthy contextualization, here’s my look at Around the Sun, newly reissued as a 2LP set.

“Leaving New York” certainly comes as a shock to a listener raised on “Radio Free Europe.” Michael Stipe’s vocals are clear, out front and wholly intelligible. Piano and strings figure prominently in the mix; Peter Buck’s guitar is understated, and Mike Mills’ bass is equally subtle. If one had told me that the song was a Stipe solo track, I would have believed them. Mills’ backing vocal work – a secret ingredient to what made R.E.M. great – is either absent or nearly so; the harmony vocals in evidence sound like Stipe overdubs. There’s not a thing wrong with “Leaving New York,” but it doesn’t sound like peak R.E.M.

“Electron Blue” features more keyboards. The synth textures suggest Berlin-period Bowie, and the glitchy percussion work – oddly prominent in the mix – is perhaps too trendy by half. When guitars do make an appearance, they are seemingly used as decoration, not as core components of the song.

“The Outsiders” is pleasant enough, though a bit nondescript. Buck’s guitar is a bit more prominent – I even detect a whiff of jangle(!) – but keyboards continue to dominate. Bill Rieflin’s drum work on the song is wonderfully evocative; it might not remind anyone of Bill Berry – nor should it – but it fits the song quite well.

I wasn’t any kind of major fan of KRS-One’s guest vocal on Out of Time’s “Radio Song,” but neither did I hate it. So when Q-Tip raps on “The Outsiders,” I greet it with a shrug. Honestly, to my ears the song’s rap-dominated second half belongs on a different record.

“Make it All Okay” is more piano-led melody. But the song is strong, and Buck’s guitar figures adorn the arrangement in admirable fashion. The tune displays faint echoes of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes.” Four tracks in, R.E.M. has served up the first truly memorable tune on Around the Sun. Fans who came on board – as many did – around Out of Time would have likely appreciated this track. Unfortunately, Mills’ backing vocals are buried in the mix.

Acoustic guitar forms the basis of “Final Straw,” a song that sounds of a piece with Out of Time. A leftover from that album’s writing sessions, perhaps? Solid arrangement, too. The album seems to get better as it unfolds: “I Wanted to Be Wrong” folds in familiar elements from R.E..M.’s classic period while remaining consistent with its “new” more keyboard-dominated sound.

“Wanderlust” is as close as the band comes in 2004 to writing a bouncy pop tune. Their skill at doing so raises the rhetorical question: what if they had pursued that direction with more vigor? We’ll never know, but this song is an overlooked highlight of Around the Sun. That said, fans of R.E.M.-style guitar jangle may come away unsatisfied.

“Boy in the Well” has all of the ingredients of the best mid- and late-period R.E.M., but the tune somehow feels like a rewrite of a few other of the band’s songs. Certainly not bad, it’s merely a bit undistinguished. The electric piano textures are a nice touch, though. Happily, “Aftermath” is a winner, on a par with “Wanderlust” and as such one of the album’s strongest cuts. Rieflin’s drums and the multiple keyboards and strings dominate the mix; guitars take a back seat.

In contrast, squalling guitar feedback provides the opening of “High Speed Train.” But as it happens, that’s a red herring; the tune as a whole is built around spooky keyboard sounds. Layered, countermelodic vocal lines hearken back to early R.E.M., but not much else about the song does so.

“The Worst Joke Ever” has some lovely keyboard/string arrangement work. The song itself is modest; it’s the arrangement that makes it worth hearing. But the tune doesn’t leave a lasting impression once it’s over, and its style does feel like a retread of older R.E.M. ideas. Were it not for Stipe’s inimitable lead vocal, “The Ascent of Man” could be mistaken for any of several dozen other bands. The gospel-flavored Hammond organ is nice enough, and Buck’s (or McCaughey’s) electric sitar is a nice little bonus. But it remains somewhat faceless.

Around the Sun wraps up with its title track. Here R.E.M. sounds something like, well, R.E.M. But keyboards continue their domination, and the meditative, contemplative character that pervades the record remains.

Where Monster put me off somewhat because it seemed to rock a bit too hard, Around the Sun feels like soft middle-age: mature, sophisticated, thoughtful…but lacking in the rock department. In no way an embarrassment, R.E.M.’s 13th studio album is merely unremarkable. Many critics and fans alike have tended to agree (the rest seemed to hate it; I know of no one who loves Around the Sun).

Happily, and to my surprise, after that album’s 2008 follow-up Accelerate, R.E.M. finished on a very strong note with Collapse Into Now. In celebration of its new vinyl reissue, I’ll cover that one next.