Around the SunI’ve listened to Around the Sun at least a couple of times a day since the week before it came out, thanks to an online preview stream provided by REMhq.com. It’s lucky for you that I had that much lead time, or else you’d be reading one cranky review right now. This is a slow and subtle album, perhaps too much so for its own good, and there are a few songs that remain outright disappointments. But those repeated listenings have shown me that many of these songs are quite powerful in their simplicity and that Around the Sun is a worthwhile, although flawed, album.

The opening track and first single, “Leaving New York,” is a midtempo track that blends Mike Mills’ piano and Peter Buck’s acoustic guitar to create what at first listen sounds like a straightforward, almost bland melody. But starting with the second verse, Michael Stipe’s vocals begin to layer and overlap, with each layer following a slightly different melody. The result pulls your attention in a number of directions at once, adding emotional urgency and creating the kind of disorientation that appears to be at the heart of the song. It’s a rather impressive accomplishment.

Unfortunately the album goes off the rails with the next song, “Electron Blue,” a repetitive electronics-tinged song that just doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere. “The Outsiders” features a rap by Q-tip as its third verse and is more effective at establishing a mood, but still doesn’t stand out. “Make It All Okay” is another piano-heavy ballad that has some potential, but for the first time I can remember, Stipe’s lyrics just aren’t up to snuff. It sometimes feels like he’s struggling just to fill out the melody with a lot of repeated words and pauses, such as the frequently used “It’s a long . . . long, long road . . . and I don’t know . . . which way . . . to go.” Stipe is usually able to use his melody and inflection to create a feeling such that the words don’t matter as much, but his performance on this track and in a couple of other places on the album just drew my attention to lyrics that seemed banal to me. It’s really a shame because this album does feature very effective use of Mills’ background vocals to create some effective moods.

That said, there are many places where he’s up to his usual standard. “Final Straw” is where the album begins to reassert itself. Written and initially released on REMhq.com in March 2003 as the invasion of Iraq began, this song combines direct lyrics and a calm, determined performance by Stipe with acoustic guitar and very well done synth/electronic elements to powerful, even haunting effect. I originally preferred the rough studio mix from 2003, but I’ve come to appreciate the album version. Towards the end there’s a high keyboard note in the background that gives the whole thing an almost choral feel; that note has a greater emphasis on the album track and I think that works.

The political tone carries through to the next song, “I Wanted to Be Wrong,” where Stipe says “I wanted to be wrong, but everyone was humming a song I don’t understand,” and “we can’t approach the Allies ’cause they seem a little peeved.” Outside of that last line, the political undercurrent that carries through the album is one you almost have to know to be looking for, because many of these songs could just as easily be about breakdowns in relationships or a more general feeling of social alienation. When you know the subtext, I do think it adds more power to the songs – but then I tend to agree with R.E.M.’s political stances more often than not, and your mileage may vary. Nowhere is this truer than the album’s final track, “Around the Sun” – the first R.E.M. song to be a title track. The song is used over the closing credits of Going Upriver, a movie about John Kerry’s experiences in Vietnam and as a protestor afterward. I don’t know whether or not the song was written about Kerry, but it’s hard for me not to think of him when I hear lines like “give me a voice so strong I can question what I have seen” and “hold on world ’cause you don’t know what’s coming, hold on world ’cause I’m not jumping off.”

rating: 3 out of 4Thematically speaking, the album is very consistent, almost too much so. In addition to the tracks I’ve mentioned, “Boy in the Well” and “High Speed Train” are particularly subdued and contemplative tracks. It’s only on the jaunty “Wanderlust” and the uptempo acoustic number Aftermath that the album brightens up at all, and even these aren’t much of a change of pace. In its melancholy approach, Around the Sun has drawn a number of comparisons to Fables of the Reconstruction and Automatic for the People. But there’s nothing here like the loud, goofy fun of Fables’ “Cant Get There from Here” or Automatic‘s Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite to act as an escape valve. R.E.M. spent a long time recording this album, starting in early 2003, then taking a break for the tour anticipating their best-of album In View, and then returning to the studio this year to finish. In the process, they held off on some of the rockier songs they had been working on because they didn’t fit the feel of the album. I can’t help but wonder if they’d have been better served to just assemble the best collection of songs they could.

Around the Sun is not an album that immediately grabs you, but there’s a lot of very good work here. Like a lot of fans, I’m waiting for R.E.M. to break out of the slower mood they’ve explored in their three post-Bill Berry albums. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore the good work that’s right in front of me. Truth be told, there’s a good chance this album might improve with age; my initial reaction to 1998’s Up was rather subdued, but it’s now one of my favorite albums. It wouldn’t surprise me if songs like “Final Straw” and “I Wanted to Be Wrong” earn Around the Sun a similar status in the future.

Order this CD

  1. Leaving New York (4:49)
  2. Electron Blue (4:12)
  3. The Outsiders (4:14)
  4. Make It All Okay (3:44)
  5. Final Straw (4:07)
  6. I Wanted to Be Wrong (4:35)
  7. Wanderlust (3:03)
  8. Boy in the Well (5:22)
  9. Aftermath (3:53)
  10. High Speed Train (5:03)
  11. The Worst Joke Ever (3:38)
  12. The Ascent of Man (4:07)
  13. Around the Sun (4:28)

Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 2004
Total running time: 55:21