With the release of Automatic For The People in 1992, R.E.M. sealed their position as one of the biggest bands in the world. They’d been gathering critical plaudits for years before of course, and had hits with Losing My Religion and Shiny Happy People, but Automatic was the one where it all came together in a huge way.
Of course, the problem with making a career-defining record is where you go to from there. Successive records such as the loud, punky Monster and the experimental New Adventures In Hi-Fi never quite hit the spot and apart from the release of a predictably entertaining greatest hits collection, In Time, last year, the band seemed destined to never quite catch the zeitgeist in the same way again.
The world has changed since the last R.E.M. album Reveal however. The current occupant of the White House, the cataclysmic event of 9/11 and the ensuing ‘war on terror’ all appear to have galvanised Michael Stipe and company. R.E.M. have always had a social conscience, and Around The Sun is their angriest and most explicitly political album. It’s also, happily enough, their best since the landmark that was Automatic.
The album’s lead single Leaving New York is absolutely glorious. A melancholic yet uplifting song, it features some stunning harmonies from Stipe and Mike Mills that will leave goosebumps down your spine. The lyrics could be seen as a ode to a city ravaged by tragedy, yet it also works perfectly well as a more conventional love song to a person. Either way, the moment where Mills and Stipe join forces to plead “I told you I’d love you, forever I’d love you” is one of the great musical moments of the year.
The songs on Around The Sun have received criticism from some quarters for all sounding the same, and it’s true that not many songs deviate from the mid-paced acoustic ballad. Only Wanderlust raises above a trot (and is, interestingly enough, the worst track here) with the majority of the album settling into the tried and tested R.E.M. template. To dismiss this is to miss the point – it lends the album a gorgeous, world-weary air that fully demonstrates where the band’s collective head is at.
Granted, some moments don’t work. The appearance of a guest rap on The Outsiders from A Tribe Called Quest‘s Q-Tip grates somewhat and compares unfavourably with KRS-One‘s blistering appearance on Radio Song. The keyboard drone of Electron Blue reminds one of the band’s friends Radiohead, but also of some of the less inspiring moments from the Up album.
However, the good moments far outweigh the less inspiring ones. Make It All Okay for instance is a beautiful piano ballad, with Stipe sounding battered, bruised yet still defiant. A post-break up song, this is R.E.M. at their most affecting (“so you worked out your excuses, turned away and shut the door”). Boy In The Well is another immensely impressive song, with Stipe’s voice at its very best – it’s just the right side of being epic. Final Straw and I Wish I Was Wrong meanwhile, are the album’s most pointedly political tracks (“if the world were filled with the likes of you, I’m putting up a fight” as Final Straw puts it) and are both examples of the time that the air of wistful sadness turns to anger.
The title track is almost the perfect album closer, building as it does to an uplifting crescendo before slowly fading away. This album may never quite touch the majestic heights that they have done on occasion in the past, but that would be a tall order for many groups – this is a welcome reminder that there are still bands out there who exude class and quality.