It’s no secret that R.E.M. became an entirely different band after the departure of Bill Berry in 1997. Up until that point, R.E.M. had released numerous classic albums (pretty much all their albums on IRS and Automatic for the People), some scattershot ones with great songs (Out of Time, I’m looking at you) and one polarizing one (Monster).
Without one of their founding members, you can’t really blame R.E.M. for going a different route. Their first foray without Berry was 1998’s electronic-tinged Up which has its merits but mostly finds the band finding its feet. 2001’s Reveal was a Beach Boys-style pop affair that attempted to recapture the some of glory days of Out of Time and Automatic for the People. Those two albums aren’t particularly good, but they merely tread water.
Which brings us to 2004’s Around the Sun. It’s the first time that R.E.M. ever sounded bored. Peter Buck’s trademark chiming guitars are almost entirely absent. Mike Mills’ background vocals have always been the band’s secret weapon and on Around the Sun, and with the exception of “Leaving New York” you have to search hard to find them. It seems that the Mills and Buck finally gave into Michael Stipe’s pretentious tendencies and let him guide the entire album.
If you’d ever like to imagine what a Michael Stipe solo album would sound like, Around the Sun is about as close as we’ll probably get considering he recently announced that he’s pretty much all but given up singing. Almost all of the songs are mid-tempo numbers that crawl along like a slug effectively becoming a showcase for Stipe’s wordy and for him, clearer lyrics.
At his best, Stipe is one of rock’s most gifted vocalists. Throughout most of R.E.M.’s career his voice managed to capture all kinds of emotions with lyrics that may or may not have meant anything. Almost all of Murmur means absolutely nothing, but his voice makes it seem like the lyrics are not only important, but also emotionally meaningful. Stipe has always been interested in the more heavy-handed aspect of art, but his bandmates almost always reigned him in. I’m almost certain if Stipe were in charge of most of the music from the beginning, R.E.M.’s first few albums would have consisted of songs akin to the spoken-word and avant-garde bridge of “Stumble” off of Chronic Town.
It’d be easy to put the blame of Around the Sun all on Stipe. But neither Mills nor Buck stepped up and gave him something to work with. Buck has gone on record to say that at various points he became frustrated that R.E.M. was turning into a part-time band. On Around the Sun, they don’t even sound like a band who are friends or musical partners.
1997’s R.E.M. Live attempted to prove that the songs on Around the Sun were actually decent, just soiled by the production. While the live incarnations have more guitar and R.E.M. attempt to sound like a band, the performances don’t make up for lackluster songs. As a good as R.E.M. was live, they were never like The Who or Bruce Springsteen who could turn their shortcomings in the studio into a revelation live. (Case in point: Tommy is actually a mediocre record, but live was it was incredible and could be a spiritual experience.)
The only good thing about Around the Sun is that is so bad, that it forced R.E.M. to take a good look at themselves and what they had become. Not content to be a dying band (because that’s what they were and sound like on Around the Sun), they wisely chose to bow out on a high note with two really good albums (Accelerate and Collapse Into Now). With that in mind, Around the Sun sounds more like the dark before the dawn, rather than the sound of a band dying as it comes through the speakers.