Around the Sun
The Music Box's #3 album of 2004
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2004, Volume 11, #11
Written by John Metzger
In the wake of its career-defining masterpiece Automatic for the People, R.E.M. nearly fell apart. To its credit, the band avoided the pitfall that has sunk many ensembles after an unmitigated success — that is the tendency to become lost in a static hell of endless regurgitation — but its shape-shifting approach wasn’t terribly successful either. As the collective tinkered with its sound, each outing ventured in a different direction, but the summation of it all amounted to little more than an uneven mess. With its mangy, post-grunge, arena rock, Monster was nearly forgettable; New Adventures in Hi-Fi was intriguing, though it also was quite scattered; in perfecting the sonic textures of its predecessor, Up became the lone bright spot; but the subsequent Reveal fell flat in its attempts to merge the group’s past and present into a functional whole. Indeed, fans hardly could be blamed for turning their backs on this once legendary act as its restless fiddling became tiresomely dull.
There is a positive conclusion to the story, however, and R.E.M.’s 13th studio outing Around the Sun is, quite frankly, the album that Reveal should have been. In essence, the effort is a refinement of the band’s explorations over the course of the past 12 years, one that essentially merges the melodic intonations of Automatic for the People with the lushly atmospheric orchestrations of Up. There are touches, too, scattered here and there throughout the set, that recall, however faintly, the magnificence of Reckoning, Murmur, and Life’s Rich Pageant, and although the drum machines and electronic effects persist, the group finally has found an organic home for them within its songs.
Full of introspective contemplation, Around the Sun features masterfully intertwined tales of political and romantic isolation that, at first glance, appear universally accessible to R.E.M.’s fans — no matter on which side of the ideologically polarized spectrum they happen to sit. Instead of hitting its supporters over the head with a blunt, lyrical sledgehammer, the band cleverly takes a more subdued approach, one that reaches out to middle America and speaks to more than those who already have seen the light. While its songs easily could be about relationships, buried inside them are earnest supplications for change as well as barbed comments directed at the Bush administration’s hasty march toward war in Iraq and its unprecedented assault upon the environment. Is it any coincidence that Berlin, Kyoto, and Marseilles are name-checked in High Speed Train or that Aftermath alludes to The Clash’s London Calling? On The Outsiders, the band addresses a frightened American public and attempts to heal it with a mantra of "I am not afraid," while Leaving New York, a hazy ode to the Big Apple, is draped with a somber spirit of post-9/11 melancholy.
That R.E.M. has been able to stage a comeback that is so strong after more than a decade of nearly aimless meandering is undoubtedly a pleasant surprise. Indeed, the band has often seemed as tired, lost, and adrift as the nation that it now is addressing. However, by so perfectly capturing the pain, the sorrow, the hopes, the fears, and the uncertainties of the American public and merging it with its most infectious batch of melodies since Automatic for the People, R.E.M. has concocted its finest outing since that aforementioned classic. This is the new R.E.M. in all its resplendent glory. ½
Of Further Interest...
Around the Sun is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2004 The Music Box