R.E.M. – Around The Sun
The first ever title track on an R.E.M. record, “Around the Sun” doesn’t particularly sound like much of Around the Sun, but earns its top billing by getting as close to epic as this folksy strain of R.E.M. allows.
The song has a nice sense of scale to it, building from a relaxed acoustic opening to a sweeping strings-and-piano chorus and culminating in a climax that recalls, of all things, The Lion King.
With two exceptions, the “hold on, world” section is my favorite moment on the album.
Anyway. Enough Around the Sun. Next up: the rock we were promised.
Two further studies in affable mediocrity.
R.E.M. – Aftermath
“Aftermath” is a likable sketch. With some work, it might’ve been a pretty good pop song; instead, it’s largely a forgettable one. It’s got an agreeable melody, but a placeholder chorus; a nice piano part, but the least inspired drumming of whoever it is that’s drumming’s career. Partly to blame is producer Pat McCarthy, who despite having done a good job on Up and a pretty good one on Reveal is consistently the worst part of Around the Sun. His production on “Aftermath” is aggressively beige, the washes of sound all watered down until you can barely tell the keyboards from the guitars, the false strings from Mills’ sterilized vocals. But the band deserves a lot of the blame: this is, plainly, an underwritten song, one whose winning melody can’t survive the weight of its performers’ collective indifference.
Album MVP Stipe’s lyrics are an empathetic, gently optimistic account of the (duh) aftermath of a breakup, full of details that ring true. (That poor cat.) (Do people still say “duh”?) And Stipe deserves credit for selling the emotional beats with disarming directness, or at least that’s how I account for why I’m oddly moved when he sings “And you close your eyes. He’s not coming back.” ”You’re so alive,” he finishes—and it’s a shame the music can’t say the same.
Stipe’s good work on “Aftermath” is undone by his half-assed sidemen. The music has hints of pathos, catharsis, uplift, even something that could be called majesty. But they’re just hints. As is, this song just sounds like a coffee commercial.
R.E.M. – High Speed Train
It’s clear from the way the words are sung that Stipe’s character in “High Speed Train” is a needy, obsessive creep. Lyrics that look saccharine and trite on paper like ”I’ll bring you a big bouquet / I picked it myself today / It complements your eyes / there’s love at the end of the line” or the opening “When I look into your eyes” are redeemed by Stipe’s nuanced, contrapuntal delivery. It’s just as clear that the character’s high speed travel is wearing on his psyche, contributing to his unreliability. His sense of jetlag infects the listener through the track’s own weird sense of temporal displacement, of simultaneously going somewhere and nowhere, which the song creates through lurching, screeching soundscapes that sound both like train tracks and like the cities they move through.
This complex interplay between the song’s sound world and its unlikable protagonist recalls Up, but there’s something aggressively uncompelling about this song, a kind of anti-charisma that, in conjunction with the numb production, makes it the most forgettable song on Around the Sun. Closer listens reveal hidden depths, but its mood is too skeezily sinister to want to inhabit for too long, or too often. Don’t wrestle me for a spoon in my sleeping bag, Michael Stipe.
The Spanish guitar that gallantly gallivants out during the bridge is a cute joke, both because its sound reflects the protagonist’s self-image more than his clammy reality and because it comes just after the line “Berlin, Kyoto, or Marseilles, I’d go anywhere for you,” as though embodying exoticism. But it suffers from the usual Peter Buck solo problem, which I’ll go ahead and name Peter Buck Solo Syndrome for convenience and not because I want to make it a Thing, where it sounds like Buck’s struggling to stretch too few notes over the length of the bridge.
R.E.M. – Wanderlust
The third and last in Buck & Mills’ trio of Brian Wilson-flavored studio concoctions, “Wanderlust” is a bright spot in the back half of Around the Sun, a romping, joyous number that lifts the cobwebs from the record and jolts listeners back to attention.
The song’s arrangement is one of R.E.M.’s twee-est: with lustrous bells, stomping percussion, and gurgling Wurlitzer, it’s almost Christmas music. Michael Stipe fronts at his most music hall, prancing around and giving a giddy, go-for-broke performance that’s like a long series of exclamation points at the end of every new verse. Stipe again reveals himself as the album’s MVP; even when his other thirds come across as tired or uninspired, Stipe sounds re-energized, as though he missed the memo that this is supposed to be the band’s low point, not its comeback. A charmingly awkward rhyme on the chorus “(I’ve got my signals CROSSED! / it’s overwhelming beCAUSE!”) is probably my favorite recurring touch of his here, but the standout moment is obviously the finale of the bridge, which I’ve quoted in my heading. You get the sense that Stipe would’ve killed in vaudeville.
It’s not the most substantive or memorable thing R.E.M. ever did, but its charm is undeniable, its energy infectious, and on an album so dreary with ballads, “Wanderlust” is a welcome burst of levity.
R.E.M. – I Wanted To Be Wrong
And now a song that gets everything right, the shimmering gossamer ballad “I Wanted To Be Wrong.”
Its arrangement, all warm swells of strings and delicately hesitant melody, is enveloping, even comforting, setting for words that consider the state of the United States with a mix of sadness, resignation, and hope. It’s a strong contrast to the astringent folk of its predecessor, which covers similar subject matter. The wordless bridge is one of the best in R.E.M.’s discography, its echoey guitar and airy falsetto sounding more like something U2 or even Radiohead would attempt.
Stipe sings of feeling out of sync with and befuddled by his country, but he does it with an even-handedness and an empathy that are admirable. The music’s gentle sweep takes the bite out of some of his lyrics, so that lyrics that look bitterly ironic on the page like “The top’s down on the T-Bird / We’re the children of the free” just comes across as wistfully regretful and sad. Throw in a great, unexpected Beatles reference, and you have one of the best songs on the record.
Or, “We don’t have a prayer between us.”
To my mind Around the Sun only has two awful songs. It has its share of badly produced and badly conceived songs, some of which don’t need to exist, but none but the first two in this post are actively awful. So here’s where I harsh everyone’s mellow and get all hands on the bad ones.
R.E.M. – Make It All Okay
“Make It All Okay” is the worst song ever to appear on an R.E.M. record. Opinions = assholes and all that, and the song certainly has its (few, tepid) fans, but “Make It All Ok” is unlike other subpar R.E.M. songs in that it’s bad in a way that’s deeply disheartening. “Make It All Okay” is an epically misjudged ballad that tries for grandeur and misfires at every step of the way. It’s saccharine in an insincere-seeming way; other songs on Around the Sun circle the drain of mawkishness, but are redeemed somewhat by good craftsmanship, or some minor spark of inspiration. “Make It All Okay,” though, is what “Leaving New York” threatens to be: empty treacle, utterly without soul or interest. Other R.E.M. songs can seem cynical, like Reveal’s by-the-numbers tearjerker “I’ll Take The Rain,” but at least they’re competently put together. “Make It All OK” sounds like it was assembled by another, less invested, less capable band.
“Make It All Ok” is the worst R.E.M. song both because it’s uncharacteristically formulaic and because it seems to get every little part of the formula wrong. It’s the Tommy Wiseau of R.E.M. songs. (Though sadly nowhere near as entertaining as that sounds.)
R.E.M. – The Worst Joke Ever
Undercooked and overlong, with too many unmemorable lyrics, “The Worst Joke Ever” is the album’s answer to “Diminished,” the plodding courtroom drama that drags down the back half of Up. While that one is enlivened by its melody (especially on the soaring bridge) and a slick slide guitar (everything’s better on Up™) the arrangement on “Worst” is dullness itself, characterized mainly by its lack of character.
While I’m avowedly Team “Make It All Okay” on the matter, there’s a case to be made that “The Worst Joke Ever” is the worst song
ever on Around the Sun, in the sense that it is the least developed, distinct, and complete, an unpromising sketch of a song that’s dull, turgid, and utterly forgettable. And all of that is true: I just listened to it and I can’t remember how it goes.
R.E.M. – Final Straw
“Final Straw” isn’t bad so much as unnecessary. For four minutes that feel like six, it’s a largely unchanging, self-serious dirge somberly opposing itself to the moral hypocricy of Bush’s America. It’s a worthy message, but the musically uninvolving “The Final Straw” is unlikely to agitate listeners to do anything but hit skip. And it’s redundant, too, as the very next song on the record takes on the same subject matter to much greater effect.
R.E.M. (Featuring Q-Tip) – The Outsiders
“The Outsiders” is the most mediocre song on Around the Sun. There are songs on the record that are duller or worse-written, but none of them are as perfectly realized in their mediocrity as “The Outsiders.” It’s far from the worst thing on the record, but not among the best; it’s mildly catchy, eminently listenable, and not entirely forgettable. It’s got a soothing, trip-hop-derived sound, a solid chord progression, a chorus that sticks (but feels like the ramp-up for another, better chorus), a reasonably intriguing narrative (someone receives potentially life-changing news in a restaurant, and, uh, that’s pretty much it), and a nicely textured outro with wavy organ and unexpectedly angular guitars. “The Outsiders” is well-conceived, competently performed, and harmless. If you like it, there’s a good chance you’ll find a big chunk of Around the Sun likable, too.
The lyrics’ story is vague but elevated by well-observed details (like the one headlining this post) and outlines, if a bit basically, some ensuing moral ambiguity: ”So am I with you, or am I against? / I don’t think it’s that easy, we’re lost in the grip.” I’m not entirely clear on what Q-Tip’s verse has to do with the song’s story; while it’s sonically a good match for the music, it doesn’t impart any memorable lines or add much to the track but texture.
Q-Tip’s verse is the first rap on an R.E.M. song since KRS-One’s awesomely blustering verse on “Radio Song,” and a comparison illustrates what I find lacking about the otherwise decent “The Outsiders.” “Radio Song” is an ambitious goof, a song that shouldn’t work and almost doesn’t, that teeters on the edge of complete ridiculousness for the entirety of its running time, and is better for it. “The Outsiders” is tasteful, and safe, to a fault. Its chorus promises “volcanic change of plot,” but the song just lies there, dormant.
R.E.M. – Electron Blue
Sounding essentially like the poppiest, most upbeat Up song that never was, ”Electron Blue” hitches that record’s sense of sonic exploration to a vocal and a lyric that convey a sense of starry-eyed wonder and adventure. It’s one of Around the Sun’s unqualified successes.
Yet another retro-futuristic dispatch from the alternative universe where R.E.M. are a successful synthpop band, “Electron Blue” is a streamlined pop song composed of burbling fridge-buzz synths, bouncy keys, and surprisingly sprightly drum programming. Above these flies Stipe, who gives the track one of the record’s best melodies and one of his all-time liveliest, most infectiously fun vocals. Unusually for a record whose otherwise deadening production makes even its live instruments sound like keyboard presets, “Electron Blue,” with its largely keys-and-drum-loops arrangement, feels live, vibrant with the sense of three or four people playing together in a room, having a blast.
Lyrically, it’s a bit oblique; one in a series of Michael’s “future”/”dream world” songs, set in the pleasantly apocalyptic cityscape in which Stipe apparently spends a good deal of his sleeping life, “Electron Blue” relies on signs and symbols unreadable by pretty much anyone else. (No, it doesn’t make any more sense when Stipe explains it.) It doesn’t really matter, though: what matters is the sense of embarkation and adventure that the words convey, and that the music brings to rousing life.
R.E.M. – Leaving New York
“Leaving New York” is an R.E.M. song grafted onto an Air Supply ballad. It follows the template of your dentist’s waiting room’s favorite 80s hit but departs from it in ways that reassert that reassert R.E.M.’s sonic identity, that inform you that, yes, you’re still listening to R.E.M. At 1:55, melancholy arpeggios and a cascading, E-Bowesque vocal take over from the staid verses, and an undercurrent of ragged sadness comes to balance the otherwise saccharine tone of the song. From there the song becomes a layered vocal round recalling earlier hits, with Stipe’s wearied, yelped background vocals a darker counterpoint to the crystalline lead melody. Similarly, the inoffensive but undistinguished clichés of the lyrics (the trite but true “it’s easier to leave than to be left behind,” the trite but questionable “life is sweet”) are vivified by the haggard second verse’s imagery, its shadows of necklaces and its mercurial futures.
Few songs in R.E.M.’s discography are, for me, as frustrating as this one. On the one hand, I admire that it tries to subvert a form from the inside, exposing all the emotional cracks and crevices in the lacquer of easy listening’s easy feelings. On the other hand, it’s still basically an Air Supply song. R.E.M. have an admirable knack for wringing great songs and sounds out of a variety of styles and genres, but their choice to explore adult contemporary and 80s soft rock on Around the Sun seems baffling (if prescient). Musically, the track’s chiming guitars and gorgeously stacked vocals tend to win me over. Lyrically, it’s another story: “Leaving was never my proud” is a clunker in contention for Michael’s worst ever.