R.E.M | Around the Sun (Warner Bros.)

We heard it was gonna be fiery and political, and…okay, “Final Straw” is a nice little protest song. “There’s a hurt down deep that has not been corrected/There’s a voice in me that says you will not win” is a great verse to Dubya. But mostly, Michael, you’ve put soft, introspective songs on here that are kinda vague, and some of ’em are sorta meandering.

 

What’s the frequency, Michael? Gotta ask this on behalf of the fans who are tuning out the “mellower” R.E.M., as revealed on your new CD Around the Sun. Amateur reviewers on Amazon.com and elsewhere have posted unenthusiastic or mixed reviews, and a bunch of scribes in the monthly music rags started losing interest around the time of Up (even though some of us think that’s your most underrated album, filled with cool songs like “Hope,” “Walk Unafraid,” and “Suspicion”). How come there’s no real rockers on this CD, and precious few up-tempo songs period, although “Wanderlust” is a decent little foot-tapper? Is this softer, more laid-back sound just a little agit for the never believer? Are we losing touch?

Look, R.E.M.’s one of the biggest groups in the world, a band that’s always had integrity. You guys rock the vote, do wonderful things for the right causes, managed to stay together after Bill Berry quit, and write fantastic tunes. But this Sun album—it’s not quite what we expected, Stipey, old friend. We heard it was gonna be fiery and political, and…okay, “Final Straw” is a nice little protest song. “There’s a hurt down deep that has not been corrected/There’s a voice in me that says you will not win” is a great verse to Dubya. But mostly, Michael, you’ve put soft, introspective songs on here that are kinda vague, and some of ’em are sorta meandering. Sure, the single “Leaving New York,” that’s a fine piece of songwriting. Pretty close to classic R.E.M. with a hummable chorus and everything.

Oh, and Michael, your singing is truly beautiful and clear, and distinctive…more so than ever. Nuts to those people who preferred you when you mumbled; no one can argue that you’re not one of the finest vocalists in rock these days. But all these slow songs—”Make It All Okay,” “Electron Blue,” “I Wanted to Be Wrong” (yeah, it’s pretty), “The Worst Joke Ever”—that’s a lotta down-tempo stuff for the folks to sit patiently through. So the band wanted to have a unified sound—is consistency so great, though, if people end up taking the disc off, or skipping to the more interesting tracks like the somewhat peppy “Aftermath” and the darkly hypnotic “High Speed Train,” which has that cool distorted keyboard ping on it? How many people are gonna “stay the course” on this one? They’re trying to keep up with you, Stipe, but I don’t know if they can do it.

One more thing: did Peter Buck feel okay about taking more of a back seat on this one? Seems like he just wants to be, not play anything fancy this time. At any rate, I’m gonna give it time. Around the Sun’s growin’ on me already, and it does stir the emotions when listened to in bed, lyin’ there in the darkness. This is unsettled music for an unsettled time, that’s clear. But Michael, you know the beginning of the album where you sing, “It’s quiet now/And what it brings/Is everything”? Um, it’s not everything. I like peace and quiet much as the next guy, but people wanna rock a little, too. They like the fiery R.E.M., the quirky R.E.M. You’re becoming a cult band again, Michael, with this sort of thing. You once hit with “Man on the Moon”; now you’re traveling Around the Sun. Try not to burn out, okay?

 

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