In the early nineties, four restlessly innovative musicians, Michael Stipe,
Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry, transcended the drum and bass beats
popularizing contemporary radio to make several immensely accessible
acoustic-driven rock albums - "Out of Time," "Automatic for the People" and
Following the departure of drummer Berry in 1997, the quartet decided to
become full-time soft-rockers. Both 1998's "Up" and 2001's "Reveal" had
moments that hinted at R.EM.'s previous glory ("Lotus," "Imitation of
Life"), but more often than not, the discs found Stipe's vocals drowning in
a puddle of heavily produced electronic instrumentation.
"Around the Sun," finds the band re-imagining the string-infused balladry of
1992's "Automatic for the People" to craft its most lyrically coherent
record to date. And while the prospect of R.E.M. returning to the quieter
sounds of yesteryear might not exactly be what post-modern rock fans have
been yearning for, the set makes for an engaging musical collection that
subtly evokes loneliness while charting the breakdown in romantic
The acoustic longing of "Leaving New York" gives the band a dreamy lounge
act sound that numbingly tells the story of a lover breaking off a
relationship in order to avoid getting dumped ("You might've succeeded in
changing me/ I might've been turned around/ It's easier to leave than to be
left behind"). "The Outsiders," on the other hand, coats lyrics that portend
an imminent change in a relationship with a steady drumbeat and one of
R.E.M.'s best laid guitar harmonies.
But the album works best when the group keep things quiet. On "Make It All
OK," a guy entertains and then discards the entreaties of a former lover. As
a sweet keyboard melody propels the track, Stipe delivers a penetrating
six-word phrase, "Didn't you, now? Didn't you, now?" In the catchy
"Aftermath," the group refashions what is essentially a country and western
number into a fine pop song. In the final seconds, as Mike Mills and Peter
Buck bathe the track in warm melodies, Stipe brightens the album with his
most optimistic lyrics ("Now you've worked it out/ And you see it all/ And
you've worked it out"). And on the subtly narcissistic "The Ascent Of Man,"
the group cooks a beautiful hymn that mixes soft electric strumming with a
layered vocal track in which Stipe playfully repeats the word "yeah" in
altering vocal octaves.
The album isn't without a few hiccups. The rap from Q-Tip, which closes "The
Outsiders" feels forced, while the bouncy synth-infused "Electron Blue"
sinks Stipe's vocals in an orgy of electronic beats and a mechanized drum
line. But "Around The Sun" succeeds in showing a band intent on using old
musical ingredients to cast new musical spells.
Writer: Mark Daniell