Around the Sun, R.E.M. (2004)

"So am I with you or am I against? I don't think it's that easy, we're lost in regret." This line (from "The Outsiders," featuring A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip) emerges as the central theme in Around the Sun -- R.E.M.'s 13th album -- which was released today. And, while it may take a few more listens than usual to differentiate among the many glum mid-tempo tracks on this album, I'd say Around the Sun is easily R.E.M.'s most cohesive album since Monster. Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and new drummer Bill Rieflin have finally emerged with a confident sound that incorporates the musical experimentation of Up and Reveal with the classic jingly-jangly R.E.M. we all remember from the Bill Berry era. In fact, I think Around the Sun compares favorably to the Automatic days, when the Athens boys enjoyed their widest popularity stateside with a similarly disconsolate set of songs.

Early word on Around the Sun was that we were in for a very political album, one swept up in and honed on progressive outrage over Dubya excess. And, while such sentiments appear explicitly on "Final Straw" (released in 2002 during the build-up to the war in Iraq) and "I Wanted to Be Wrong" ("We can't approach the Allies because they seem a little peeved."), Michael Stipe's political sermonizing is never as overt as, on say, "Exhuming McCarthy," "Cuyahoga," or "Welcome to the Occupation" in the Life's Rich Pageant/Document era.

Instead, for R.E.M. this time around, the political is personal. In fact, the band doesn't seem angry so much as disheartened. From the opening track (and first single) "Leaving New York" ("It's easier to leave than to be left behind") a large majority of songs on Around the Sun dwell not on political causes but on the "Aftermath" (also the name of the second single) of shattered relationships...the turmoil, bitterness, conflict, and -- eventually -- grudging acceptance that accompanies a love run its course. On the cascading "Make it All Ok": "So you worked out your excuses, turned away and shut the door. The world's too vast for us now, and you wanted to explore." On "High-Speed Train" (whose crunchy metallic drone makes the minor-key railroad rock of Driver 8 seem like a pleasure ride): "You've mirrored my best disguise and turned it back on me." On "The Worst Joke Ever": "Some things don't hold up over the course of a lifetime." On "The Ascent of Man": "I'm so in love I won't attract, and with my hands tied I won't crack, 'cause in my mind I called you back." This despondent cloud over the album reaches its apex -- or nadir, actually -- in the album's relentlessly downbeat stand-out track, "Boy in the Well": "It's that sinking feeling, you know what it's bringing on...I see it, I feel it, this town is going wrong." Forget "Fall on Me": On Around the Sun, the sky has already fallen, and it's all about picking up the pieces.

To be sure, all this oppressive dwelling on lost loves can be tough to take, and I can see how some critics might feel like R.E.M. have hit a thematic rut here. Even "Wanderlust," the only relatively peppy track on the disc, doesn't avoid the album's general gloom: "Looks like the world revolves around me. Looks like it's falling down." Simply put, it's hard not to come out of a listen to Around the Sun feeling somewhat dejected. But the payoff is there, in a way, in the last track (strangely enough for R.E.M., also named "Around the Sun"): "Hold on world 'cause you don't know what's coming. Hold on world 'cause I'm not jumping off. Hold onto this boy a little longer, take another trip around the sun." Soon thereafter, in the final moments, "Around the Sun" changes keys, a ray of light pierces the clouds, and the album floats away in a sort-of-Beach-Boys shimmer (done much more successfully than any of the attempts to do this on Reveal): "Let my dreams set me free. Believe. Believe. Now now now now now now..."

As with love, Around the Sun seems to argue by the end, so with America. R.E.M. could easily have hammered the anti-Dubya agenda much harder on this album, and judging from early reports on the Vote for Change tour, it sounds like they'll be doing so extensively at their live shows. But, in a way, Around the Sun sets its goal at something broader. Don't let Dubya's travesty of an administration dishonor your admiration for the American ideal. And don't let the pains, compromises, and betrayals of this world steal from you your heart. "Do I even dare to speak? To dream? Believe?," asks "Around the Sun." The answer is Yes, "Give me a voice so strong I can question what I have seen." Hold on to the dream. Believe.

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