Wednesday, August 03, 2005

We're armed to the teeth/ born a little breach...

Finally, after 9 months, I bought Around the Sun; in the 15 years I've been into R.E.M., this has been the longest I've waited since the release. This is a record, and calls for celebration. I say Denny's, and Moons Over My Hammy shall be had. But first...

This album's just so inert. It's not bad, just boring. It's like a cat. Cats are nice, and they can be pretty, but after a while of them sitting there staring out you, making plans, you want to go out and throw a ball to a dog. You want something active. As a whole, this album is closest to Automatic, but that album moved. That album was a dog (in the context of this metaphor). That was a sad, quiet album, but it always had a forward drive. (And it had no laser gun sounds.) Around the Sun just sits there. Think of the organ and strings on "Sweetness Follows" and how that propelled the song. Or "Drive", when the electric guitar came in. "Final Straw" might have the most forward momentum on Sun, but it's probably my least favorite song.

Also, in the past, their work never felt joyless. Serious, yes; but never joyless. There's a moment in "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite", towards the end, where you can hear Stipe laugh. He laughs a bit as he sings the line about Dr. Seuss, because supposedly he'd been pronouncing it "Zeus" and Mike Mills kept throwing him dirty looks. I mean, throughout it all, they managed to keep that bit of light in there. There were happy about what they were creating. These days it feels like they're more joyless construction workers than giddy architects.

It just feels as though they're going through the motions. Not only is there little joy, but very little emotion. The only song that comes close to greatness on the new album is "Boy in the Well", which actually has a sense of emotion, both musically and lyrically. There's just this dread infused throughout the song. It feels like a dye has been cast, and it's not good. If anything, this might be one of the "politial" songs they were talking about when they were recording. Plus, it actually shakes a tiny bit of ass in the chorus. I think I may like "I Wanted to be Wrong" second most on the album (another political song), and I think on a stronger overall album it would have been better. As it is, it's a great hitter with no one to protect it in the line up. And on its own, it would be better if they didn't use what sound like fake strings. Remember the stuff on Automatic? That was effing fantastic. "The Ascent of Man" has a chance to be soulful, in a prom theme sort of way, but again, doesn't add up in the end. It's so close though, it's almost heartbreaking. In fact, a lot of the album is so close it hurts.

"Aftermath", which is a pretty great song, probably exposes the band's greatest weakness at this point: it used to be that songs like this would show up as b-sides and on comps (I'm thinking about "Photograph" on the Born to Choose comp). And that's what made R.E.M. so great; they could write a toss-off pop song and it wouldn't even make the album. Now it's the second single. But the way they write songs now, you take what you can get.

"Wanderlust" sounds like it wants to go somewhere, but feels disjointed, like they had an idea in their head and couldn't get it on tape. And instead of throwing it out, they got as far as they could and put it on the album. The boppy-bop rhythm doesn't fit the vocal melody at all. Which is a shame, because this is the one song Stipe seems to have fun singing. It's always the dumb pop songs where Stipe is most willing to stretch his voice, and to me, when his voice is about to crack, that's when the magic happens, you know? It's so close, he's taking a risk.

It's not that it's a horrible album; it has its moments. It's just that so much more should be expected, and so much more should be delivered. I'll continually go for bat for Up and say it's fascinating, but Around the Sun isn't fascinating in the same sort of way. Up was successful because you got the feeling they were throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, and succeeding more times than not. They pushed forward after Bill left, they tried new things. It ended up having some really original songs, like "Sad Professor" (one of the better R.E.M. songs when the dust settles, and definitely one of the most underrated), "Why Not Smile" (listen to how the music slowly builds, layer by layer, contrasting with the dispassionate vocals), and "Hope" (if you're going to rip off Pulp and Leonard Cohen, at least this is the way to do it). But here, it's like they're not trying, or not being pushed. They are close, but the difference is at once small and incredibly big. So bring back Scott Litt! And Bill! And please, for the love of God, stop it with the fucking blip-bloop laser gun sounds and electronic grinds.


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