Around the Sun
he secret to R.E.M.’s success was simple: no one ached better.
It explains why popists hate them so much (‘cause the ache left little room for genuine “pop” in their sound), and also why they’re the worst arena-rock band of the last 20 years (‘cause ache doesn’t translate so well in the Skydome).
Stipe’s lyrics typically looked like doggerel when taken out of context, awkward, over-earnest, frequently diarrheal. Even in their early 20s, Buck, Mills, and Berry made scant claims on rock, their moody, mushily indistinct abstractions incapable of pop transcendence or three-chord gravity.
So all we’re left with then is the ache, where Stipe’s sincere pretension and the band’s swirly non-rock both pay off. That feeling of ineffable yearning, an inarticulate sadness brought on by barely-remembered nostalgia and a nagging sense of something special being revealed to you briefly, only to be lost forever.
A tricky and obviously nebulous emotion, and yet when R.E.M. nailed it they could simply overwhelm you on the spot. Of course there was “Losing My Religion”, which only became a hit when it was misread as a testimonial, but also “Nightswimming”, “Find the River”, “Country Feedback”, “Half a World Away”, “You Are the Everything”, “Sitting Still”, “Shaking Through”, “Camera”, and “Undertow”, just to name a crucial nine or so.
On the other hand, Around the Sun sounds like it was recorded in a zero gravity chamber, just like the band’s two previous records. All the instruments have been sterilized, tested beforehand to ensure they don’t make a mess. Likewise, much of the emotional content has been clipped, even the quietest ache deemed too demonstrative, replaced by a happily lobotomized naiveté and a giddily gauche sense of self-satisfaction.
The opener (and first single) “Leaving New York” is emblematic of everything that’s wrong here, and that’s saying something since it’s one of the album’s better songs. Yes, the vocal layering is exquisite and the Rickenbacker suitably bittersweet, but the loaded invocation of New York without any real internal justification comes off as suspicious at best and cheaply sentimental at worst, a glibly sanguine bit of pap from a band that once explored places that hadn’t already been squeezed dry of meaning or metaphor like Rockville and Cuyahoga.
And it gets worse before it gets better. After a couple of charmingly dated electro-pop placeholders (the latter, “The Outsiders”, featuring an utterly negligible rap from Q-Tip that makes you pine for the awesome awfulness of “Radio Song”), Stipe hits a sanctimonious nadir with “Make It All OK”, his refrain of “Jesus loves me fine” a smugly empty signifier from a songwriter once capable of wringing pathos out of religious zealots on daytime talk shows (“New Test Leper”).
Surrounded by cloying little throwaways like “Make It All OK” and “I Wanted To Be Wrong”, the sober anti-war protest “Final Straw” comes off here as perfunctory and ineffectual, far more substantive earlier this year as a ‘Net-only stand-alone while the war machine was in full swing.
Of course, none of this inconsequential run-up truly prepares you for the terrific badness of “Wanderlust”, another of R.E.M.’s spectacularly inept attempts at traditionally uplifting pop (see “Shiny Happy People”, “Stand”), substituting artificial, Zoloft-addled chirpiness for actual hooks and songcraft, even swiping a chord change from the far-superior “Imitation of Life” to do it.
The good news is things pick up, eventually. The bad news is the album ends just as it starts getting interesting. Three of Around the Sun’s final four songs are its best, the wistful (and yes, a little aching) “High Speed Train”, the Green-ish title track, and especially the insistent anthemics of “The Ascent of Man”, where Stipe even risks enough to sing off-key (not to be confused with “The Boy in the Well”, where he’s bored and just sounds like shit).
At this point in their career, R.E.M. has the opposite problem of U2, who overcompensate for their gradual decrepitude by trying too hard, swinging for the fences and singing for the cheap seats, a superhuman display of over-emotive bathos.
R.E.M., by contrast, is too afraid to commit at all anymore. Maybe they never fully recovered from the burn of Monster, but either way the new model R.E.M. lacks both a sense of the moment and a sense of the fumbling it takes to get there. Clearly, the band’s $80 million contract with Warner Brothers became an albatross, a cushion that inured the guys from giving themselves a kick in the ass, the kind of ache they need now more than ever.