Sunday, September 26, 2004

R.E.M. - Around The Sun

After a body of work that has been stunning in its consistent artistry, it seems that R.E.M.'s thirteenth album has proved to be the unlucky one. I have defended this band at length against a media backlash that started around the release of 'Up' in 1997 and never quite seemed to dissipate. It seemed to me that the majority of critics completely failed to recognise that 'Up' was a corageous and powerful redefinition of the band's aound following the departure of Bill Berry. Most opted to ignore Michael Stipe's dramatic shift to more open, less elusive lyrics on this album, and therefore missed the entirely aposite juxtaposition of compelling honesty against stark, more electronic backdrops. The songwriting on 'Up' ranked with the band's very best work, and despite personal difficulties at the time, they sounded awesome on the supporting tour. 'Reveal' at least partially continued the new dynamic following Berry's departure, but this time the electronic textures felt more hazy and unfocussed. Still, the bulk of 'Reveal' was still excellent, with some emotive melodies and some of the most powerful vocal performances of Michael Stipe's career. Unfortunately, I find it difficult to offer much of a defence for 'Around The Sun'.

With this album, the band seem to have built on the more unsatisfactory elements of 'Reveal' and built an entire album around them. It is almost entirely comprised of ballads, a handful of them undeniably powerful, most of them nondescript, meandering and rooted firmly to the ground. The use of electronics on 'Up' created a palpable atmosphere and added drama, but here the endless use of swathes of synth pads feels like an attempt to cover up shortcomings in the songwriting department. Yet, this is probably the least notable fault among many in the arrangements of these songs. For the most part, Peter Buck's trademark Byrdsian folk twang appears to have been banished, and the guitars (mostly acoustic) seem content to strum blandly. Whilst the band seem to have spent much of the time following 'Automatic For The People' trying to escape the southern gothic folk sound they so masterfully created, this is the first post-Automatic album that really feels stuck for ideas.

It's not all bad, though. Many of the songs here are growers. First single 'Leaving New York' has a similar charm to 'Daysleeper' and benefits greatly from a fantastic vocal arrangement in its chorus. It's one of the few songs here that really hits emotionally. 'The Outsiders' at least sounds interesting, with its unusual rhythms and eerie atmospherics, although I'm not convinced that letting Q Tip rap over it was the smartest move. 'Make it all Okay' is shamelessly schmaltzy, albeit in a grandiose, Jimmy Webb-esque way. 'Final Straw' disappointed me on first hearing last year, but stands out amongst the drab company here. 'I Wanted To Be Wrong' is at least pretty.

Elsewhere, though, the results are less successful. 'Electron Blue' aims for the same electronic territory as the wonderful 'I've Been High' from 'Reveal', but entirely lacks that song's enticing textures. It sounds forced and strained. 'High Speed Train' has a somewhat aimless melody, and its background effects swoosh and swoon without really adding or detracting from what is essentially an entirely unremarkable song. It's topped off with some of Stipe's least convincing romantic lyrics, and, oh God save us, a Spanish guitar solo. Both 'The Worst Joke Ever' and 'The Boy In The Well' have promise (and great titles), but are constricted by relentlessly strumming guitars and pounding piano. They at least have some of the more inventive melodies here.

The real problem is the consistently leaden, plodding pace that this album has assumed. It seems that the band made a conscious decision to expunge the rockier tracks recorded at the sessions (which, lest we forget, have taken two years for the band to complete). Whilst many of the lesser songs here might be interesting or diverting in isolation, in the context of the entire album, they sound completely inauspicious. The only break from the slow stride comes with the almost unfeasible jaunty 'Wanderlust', which bears a strong resemblance to 'Smile' by The Supernaturals (and therefore also indeed to 'Crouch End', one of this writer's less impressive musical ventures!). It is at least a departure for the band in terms of sound, but even in its bouncy form, it sounds tentative and unconvincing. R.E.M. songs in the past have tended to grow, both lyrically and musically, from start to finish, but the songs here seem to lack emphasis, purpose and direction. 'The Boy In The Well' and 'The Ascent of Man' are both bolstered by some electric guitars, but again sound afraid of being beefed up too much lest they offend anyone. 'New Adventures in Hi Fi' or 'Document' this is not.

Which brings us to the final issue to consider. Whilst the band recently seem to have grown more than a little tired of answering questions about their politics, Michael Stipe did make a point in interview about this record being inspired by the current state of the world. Most of the songs again seem personal and intoverted, occasionally characteristically enigmatic and frustrating. Only with 'Final Straw', their strangely muted response to the Iraq war, and with a telling line from the title track ('I wish the followers would lead with a voice so strong it would knock me to my knees') can any political motivations really be intimated. The righteous anger that fuelled their mid-eighties work certainly does not seem to rage here, despite the obvious easy targets.

Listening to this album again as I'm writing this, I feel compelled to offer the caveat that many of the more nondescript songs do seem to offer greater reward on repeated listen, and the whole album may well be one that needs time to work its magic ('Up' certainly did, and many critics were not prepared to afford it any). This time round, however, that does feel like the R.E.M. fan in me attempting to defend what is ostensibly a patchy and unmoving record. As a mature, late-period work, it certainly does not seem to offer the same excitement and humour as the excellent new Nick Cave albums, which I shall get round to reviewing shortly....

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