R.E.M.: Around the Sun
Label: Warner Brothers
Sound/Style: futuristic folk-rock, shadowy and low-key
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- R.E.M.’s wide trajectory around the pop universe has taken the alternative rockers into a variety of musical atmospheres, yet they have never veered significantly from the course they set on 1983’s dark-hued and obtuse Murmur. They are again in shadowy, mysterious territory with Around The Sun, largely steering clear of standard pop-rock formulas and offering an extended mood piece that would hit any dance floor with a dull thud.
Singer and lyricist Michael Stipe continues to beguile with obscure and poetic treatments of his chosen subject matter. Guitarist Peter Buck offers virtually no riffs or instrumental excursions, employing his six strings more as a canvas than a brush. Sampled string ensembles—string sounds produced digitally—add melancholy warmth to several tracks, yet alien bleeps protrude into "The Outsiders." And a buzzing synthesizer worms its way through "Electron Blue," which points to the cultural altar of television and its easy promise of escape and vicarious adventure.
The songs here often revolve around eerie and vaguely alien-sounding tonalities, none more so than the nightmarish "High Speed Train" and "The Worst Joke Ever." Even the relatively bouncy "Wanderlust" stumbles over a purposely off-balance rhythm figure, a trick repeated on the weighty and asymmetrical "Ascent Of Man." Elsewhere, organic piano and guitar textures are infused with electronic elements, suggesting a post-nuclear Bob Dylan record.
While the indigo and sepia-toned disc can’t be described as uplifting either melodically, rhythmically or lyrically, neither is it a doomfest. In "Final Straw," Stipe offsets hurt and hope side by side by first invoking vengeance and later concluding that "two wrongs don’t make a right" before rising into an inspired salvo that declares "Love will be my strongest weapon/I do believe that I am not alone." "Make It All Okay" implies a spiritual struggle of sorts by following the line "Jesus loves me fine" with the disclaimer "But his words fall flat this time" and posing the question "Did I hear you say we don’t have a prayer between us?"
The comparatively rustic "I Wanted To Be Wrong" appears to take a dim view of present U.S. policies, etching Bush’s America as "the milk and honeyed congregation, scrubbed and apple cheeked" and accusing them of arrogantly believing "God gave us the upper hand, we’re primed for victory."
On the title track, the band signs off with a message that not only contains optimism but earnestly seeks faith in something bigger: "I want the sun to shine on me/I want the truth to set me free/I wish the followers would lead with a voice so strong it could knock me to my knees/hang 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." The cut’s final, ethereal section urges "Believe, believe, now, now, now…"
R.E.M. enter their third decade by deftly capturing the tone of uncertain times on Around The Sun, proving that they have the fuel to remain in orbit for the foreseeable future.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.