Around The Sun


Album: Around the Sun

Artist: R.E.M.

Released: October 5th, 2004

Highlights: Leaving New York, The Outsiders, Final Straw, Around the Sun

The generally accepted narrative concerning the final phase of the long career of R.E.M. – a period that started with the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997 – has it that, following that event, the band lost the ability to deliver records of considerable quality. As such, a remarkable run that began with 1983’s “Murmur” supposedly had 1996’s “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” as its final piece. If on one hand the storytelling sticks, for indeed none of the albums released during the period in which the group worked as a trio rank among their finest; on the other hand, it does not, for it is perhaps a bit too quick to dismiss albums that do hold some value.

Case in point, the first two works that came out in those final years, 1998’s “Up” and 2001’s “Reveal”, feature a noticeable amount of tracks that range between consistent and excellent, and both – true to the band’s ever-changing nature – explore rather distinct styles: the former being a moody electronic rock work that is clearly a product of a world still feeling the effects of Radiohead’s “OK Computer”, and the latter coming off as a bright colorful album that dabbles into summertime joy and melancholy alike. Surely, as it happened with much of their post-1997 output, these records are good with a caveat; in their case, the fact their material could have used some editing, a task at which Bill Berry was reportedly very good. Nevertheless, their above-average quality is enough to debunk the established narrative regarding the group’s twilight era.

Out of the five records R.E.M. released without their drummer, though, there is one that clearly strays away from the pack and works towards confirming the perception the band quickly disintegrated when Bill Berry walked out. That album is, of course, 2004’s “Around the Sun”, rightfully and widely seen as the group’s nadir. Its link with its two predecessors is clear: from “Up”, it borrows a generally gloomy demeanor that is felt through songs in slow tempos and instrumentation centered around electronic beats, pianos, and acoustic guitars; meanwhile, from “Reveal”, it takes the production excesses and the integration of synthesized layers into the band’s sound.

Differently from them, however, “Around the Sun” is not powered by those traits; it is actually severely held back by them. Its sad and pessimistic spirit, perhaps a product of the George W. Bush years and the Iraq War, subjects that Michael Stipe touches upon both heavily and lightly during the course of the record, turns it into a uniform mass of mellow alternative rock numbers. It is, certainly, a definition that could easily apply to “Up” itself, but where that record gained rough and interestingly sentimental edges thanks to its electronic work, which was experimental and tasteful in equal parts, the tunes in “Around the Sun” are brought to the ground by production that is so intensely calculated it drowns whatever life its songs had in the first place.

Once again, having too much production is a comment that could fairly be thrown at “Reveal” as well. However, the studio trickery in that work was so absurd that one could pretty much be sure the album was being very tongue-in-cheek about it; furthermore, its exaggeration was a perfect channel for the summer vibe it was trying to broadcast. “Around the Sun”, contrarily, seems to be pretty serious about its gloss; and, unfortunately, in its case, that gloss is cold ice silently leaking into its veins, causing it to sound like a winter record that went so deep into its sad mood that it now stands lifeless on the ground.

That seriousness, in fact, emerges as the greatest problem of “Around the Sun”. Through their career, R.E.M. wrote and performed a good share of stern tracks, to the point that the album that is usually seen as their best, “Automatic for the People”, dove into suicide, death, depression, and aging. Yet, through it all, they always seemed to know having fun was necessary, an element that was continuously present in their output. “Around the Sun”, though, has no fun at all; it does take a shot at it with the circus-like “Wanderlust”, but it is hard to count it as a breezy detour when it is one of the weakest cuts here. Nobody seems to be enjoying “Around the Sun” all that much: Peter Buck is playing basic strums and riffs that sound mechanical; Mike Mills is so disconnected that his stellar backing vocals are nowhere to be seen; and Michael Stipe, he of the cryptic lyrics and unusual subjects, writes a whole lot of sappy straightforward words concerning troubled relationships and abandonment, wearing a hat that does not suit him that well.

Despite the heavy criticism it deserves, “Around the Sun” should not be dismissed entirely. After all, a clearly below-average release by the boys from Athens would still be a decent album by the standards of many other bands. Overall, Stipe’s melodic work is good, and it lands on praise-worthy heights in more than a handful of occasions, with “Aftermath” standing out among them. Furthermore, some tracks are downright strong. “Leaving New York”, the leading single and opening track, may be overly sentimental, but it has a fantastic chorus and an organic sound that should have been the blueprint for the rest of the record. “The Outsiders” is beautifully moody; its thick atmosphere signals the silent – yet certain – coming of change its lyrics imply, and while Peter Buck delivers one impressive guitar line in the chorus, rapper Q-Tip shows up for a very good hip-hop break. “Final Straw”, which reads like a direct letter to then-president George W. Bush, is carried by a brilliant acoustic strum and has extremely powerful lyrics that, through Stipe’s wise choice of words, gain contours generic enough that they could be used to question misguided leaders and lovers alike. And closer “Around the Sun” is a classic R.E.M. pop rock track, with an inventive rising coda included.

These bright spots, vastly outnumbered among thirteen songs, obviously cannot save “Around the Sun” from its general lifelessness, showing not even Bill Berry’s editing and mediation between the group’s songwriters could have rescued it. They do, however, indicate the final result had the potential to be different if the band had taken a lighter approach to the production of the album, as there is quality to be found amidst the dullness. Perhaps then, the often repeated and unfair dismissal of the group’s post-1997 output would have been avoided.

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