New R.E.M. album disappoints

by Carl Burnett | 10/12/04 5:00am

R.E.M. has made a crappy album. This is a sentence I hoped I never had to write.

"Around the Sun," R.E.M.'s 13th full-length, is a blandly consistent collection, 13 overwrought slabs of adult-contemporary mush. The tempo is restrained; even the leadoff single, "Leaving New York," rocks no harder than your average John Mayer tune. Producer Pat McCarthy's dense layers of sound are the definition of overkill. Worse yet, the group's remaining instrumentalists, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist/jack-of-all-trades Mike Mills, are confined largely to the background now. For all those who wondered what a Michael Stipe solo album might sound like, "Around the Sun" provides a good idea.

Stipe mumbled early R.E.M. lyrics so cryptically that your own interpretation was as valid as any other. Later albums, like the commercial smashes "Out of Time" and "Automatic for the People," found him enunciating more clearly, but the words were still poetically suggestive monologues rather than straightforward narratives. With the notable exception of "Everybody Hurts," Stipe relentlessly avoided directness, leaving audiences wondering about even the choruses to R.E.M.'s biggest hits. (What does it mean to be "losing one's religion," anyway?)

Lyrically, "Everybody Hurts" might fit in very well on "Around the Sun." More often than not on the new album, the clich has replaced the impenetrable metaphor as Stipe's main lyrical vehicle.

When Stipe comes up with lines that do work (one highlight: "I'd wrestle you for a spoon inside your sleeping bag, just us"), he doesn't always get the musical support he needs. Peter Buck remains one of the most evocative guitarists in rock -- when McCarthy allows his trademark jangle to emerge from the stew of keyboards and synthetic-sounding percussion. Mike Mills' considerable musical skill comes through only in a few pretty piano riffs. There are no memorable bass lines, and perhaps the biggest hole of all is the dearth of Mills' backing vocals ("Up" and "Reveal" lacked them, too).

A late-album track, "The Worst Joke Ever," begins with the titular joke, a guy-walks-into-a-bar story run through Stipe's surreal blender. Lyrically, it's a bright spot, but how can the band expect us to pay attention with no musical hook in sight?

"I Wanted to Be Wrong" suffers from the opposite problem. Halfway through, it blossoms into gorgeous Brian Wilson-ish "woo-woos" backed by a languid, echoing guitar -- but a few seconds later it's back to an uninspired lyric about alienation, backed by a digital-sounding string section.

Other questionable musical decisions include tracks like "The Outsiders" -- a stab at mid-'90s trip-hop featuring a forgettable verse by Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest -- and "Wanderlust," which finds Stipe in full Vaudeville mode. Any moment you're expecting him to emerge in a white top hat and tails, with a gold-topped cane and a wireless microphone. And "Electron Blue" is almost laughably overproduced in an attempt to compensate for some of the album's shoddiest songwriting.

There are still some moments, of course. When Stipe is at his ambiguous best and the band is allowed to play, the results can be achingly sad and beautiful. The best example is the title track, the album's anthemic closer. When Stipe sings "I wish the followers would lead / With a voice so strong it could knock me to my knees," he probably intends it as an activist call to arms. (Other songs, like the anti-war ballad "Final Straw," are even more overtly political.) But it's hard for me not to hear the lines as an expression of how tired the singer has become, how hard it is to keep doing this job.

"Leaving New York" is another highlight, if only because it improves with repeated listens. Mills' country-rock piano drives the chorus, and the song has a moody, minor feel that suits its subject matter -- nostalgia, regret, missed opportunities.

"Around the Sun" leaves me, as an R.E.M. fan, in a terrible place. I'm afraid that, like a romance that has gone on longer than it should have, my relationship with this band can only end in a slow descent into disappointment. I will always be able to looks back on the good times, the "Murmur"s and the "Reckoning"s and the "Automatic for the People"s. But if the thrill is gone, why can't I just let go?