Need proof that R.E.M. were extraordinary? Lets say the fact that they released some of the most significant indie releases ever and have inspired everyone from Nirvana to Death Cab (We all remember Kurt saying the follow-up to In Utero was going to be “his REM record,” don’t we?) just isn’t good enough for you. Well here’s your proof: Pavement spend three and a half minutes of recorded time gushing over them. That’s right, Pavement’s track on the highly popular No Alternative compilation (a great time capsule in the “alternative explosion” of the mid 90s), “The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence” is a song about how much cooler R.E.M. are than … well … anyone else. They were loved not for musical talent (always questionable), but instead for insightful borderline poetic lyrics and songs that managed to be equal parts irreverent, fun-loving, and yet full of conviction. C’mon, I’ll repeat it again for all you kids who missed their original peak, Pavement fucking loved these guys!
So when did R.E.M. become a caricature of itself? Or more importantly, when did this become a bad thing? Was it after their 1994 halfassed bid for radio-play (which they had already gotten several times) with the far-too-grunge influenced album Monster? No, I’d argue, because the group quickly distanced themselves from this mistake and rarely plays any tracks from it at their shows? Was it after their manic, solemn and unforgettable (I wouldn’t dare say underrated because just about every review I’ve read of R.E.M. since this album was released called it a watermark) New Adventures in Hi-Fi released in 1996? No, because despite loosing the normal freewheeling ease that had accompanies all their albums up to that point, and giving the band the pretentious label that had plagued it to this day, it managed to be almost entirely an extraordinary album. Was it after drummer Bill Berry left the group? C’mon, folks. I’m a drummer myself, so I have sympathy, but the clear answer in this case is no- Berry had very little influence in the songwriting, and although a great drummer, he did little that a good studio drummer couldn’t. Perhaps there is no event that one can point to, but over the course of the past three albums, R.E.M. have lost it all. It hasn’t been a downward slope, because, to be honest, Around the Sun is just as boring an album as Up which was just as bad as Reveal. They all have a few tracks that bring you to tears because they come close to being good enough for rejects for Reckoning or Automatic for the People.
So Around the Sun is worse than being a new low for the band. Instead, it’s a continued low. I have never had an R.E.M. album opener pass by with so little notice as “Leaving New York.” There is nothing interesting about the melody, the tempo, or even Stipe’s increasingly bored sounding delivery. Track two, a track that would make Guster, Third Eye Blind, or Hoobastank proud for its utterly generic sound, has Stipe declaring “…and who am I? / I’m just a guy / I’ve got a story like everyone.” I hate to keep harping on the past, but Mike, you didn’t used to be just a guy- you were something more. I don’t know if I want to buy that you’ve become the average dude who throws football parties and spends Saturdays waxing his car, but this song certainly helps your case. “The Outsiders” features another fallen great, rapper Q-Tip formerly of A Tribe Called Quest, and what could’ve been a great rap-rockkgfdgsfgd…oh sorry, I dozed off there for a second, anyhoo, Q-Tip’s cameo fades out almost as quickly as it begins, and you have the feeling it wasn’t a production trick, but instead him running out of the studio after hearing the song he was adding his name to.
The closest the album comes to anything interesting is in a brief track called “Wanderlust.” The track, propelled by a fast (for this album at least) beat, has the band sounding interested, for once, with Pete Buck’s guitar playing a few dissonant chords, and Stipe actually sounding fierce during the chorus. I had high hopes for “The Worst Joke Ever.” Its title would suggest something deeper, a personal story, a political polemic. No, not at all … it’s a telling of a joke followed by self-righteous rambling about how death is wrong. But to steal from that song’s chorus; “Give me a minute / and I’ll tell you the setup for the worst joke ever.” I myself am working on one- I don’t have anything but a punch line decided yet, but that goes “…and after Around The Sun, R.E.M. went on to make four more equally heartbreakingly half-assed albums before calling it quits.”
C’mon, Led Zeppelin only had one In Through the Out Door, Pink Floyd ended with The Final Cut, [and The Wall, but that’s an entirely different debate], The Stone Roses had Second Coming and The Clash had Cut The Crap. You’re allowed one pre-breakup debacle while still maintaining a glorious legacy. At this point, guys, think long and hard before entering the studio again. I’d say your muse left long ago, and I sure as hell don’t want my memory of your guys to be soiled by any more stuff like this.