October 21, 2004

Somewhere in Orbit

Print More

Three minutes into the first track of their most recent album, Around the Sun, R.E.M. produces their first decidedly R.E.M.-esque moment. In an overly exquisite manner, Michael Stipe emotively croons in “Leaving New York”: “You might have succeeded in changing me … It’s easier to leave than to be left behind.” Lushly layered on top of a mid-tempo acoustic guitar and overzealous keyboards, the moment should strike the listener as eerie; if one had to imagine a generic R.E.M. moment, it would sound like this.

Ever since the loss of drummer Bill Berry in 1996, critically acclaimed and popularly lauded R.E.M. has been in a constant state of flux, both in terms of their music and their popularity. With their post-Berry, post-mega rock group status, the band has attempted to rediscover their musical footing through what now consists of three diverging albums. Unlike the electronica-infatuated Up and the overtly somber Reveal, Around the Sun fails to establish a new sound for R.E.M., instead presenting the listener with a collection of songs that appear to be sampled from across the spectrum of the group’s canon.

The end product is an album with an eclectic feel, but a decided lack of direction in its musical overtones. It is almost as if Around the Sun was produced by a computer that synthesized all of R.E.M.’s previous music and wrote 13 new songs for Stipe & Co. to perform. As previously mentioned, “Leaving New York” exhibits itself as the archetypal Automatic For The People R.E.M. sound that we all have stored deep within the relapses of our head. “Electron Blue” has the electronica feel reminiscent of Up. Meanwhile, Q-Tip’s rather awkward sounding rap at the conclusion of “The Outsiders” is a gimmick taken almost verbatim out of KRS-1’s guest appearance on Out of Time. And those are only the first three songs. Lost somewhere in the middle album is the song “Wonder Lust,” which indulges in the pop-happy riffs that R.E.M. first introduced to the world with 1988’s Green. At their base, all of these songs comprise wonderfully talented songwriting and lyrics full of conviction.

Michael Stipe recently suggested that Around the Sun is an attempt to capture the emotion of being an American during this “new era” of global uncertainty. There is a sort of neurotic bitterness floating through the album, as epitomized by the anti-W polemic “You Might Be Wrong,” but the result is uninspiring at best. The songs, while possessing musical merits that a band only like R.E.M. could provide, remain disjointed from each other, and with the album’s antiseptic overproduction, they even begin to seem distant from themselves. Perhaps R.E.M. has discovered that they are at a point in their careers where, in contrast to what their lyrics suggest, it’s easier for them to stay behind than to leave.

Archived article by Matthew Nagowski
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer