Kick me out of the cult. To be a true-blue, diehard member of a rock band’s cult following there are certain unspoken rules. Perhaps the most sacred of which is to maintain that even the band’s worst album is still a great piece of music. “I just don’t like it as much as the other ones,” you may safely admit to other fans, who either nod or politely defend the work in question. But objectivity in rock cults is unheard of. That’s why cults dwindle. The moment a person testifies with all fairness and honesty that a band’s latest just doesn’t cut it, ZAP!, they’re out the cult. So long, jerk. Over the past 10 years no once-formidable rock band has seen its cult diminish more than R.E.M. Formidable? Hell, they were invincible! The consistency and breadth of the band’s catalog in the first half of their tenure has secured their place as one of pop music’s greatest. More importantly, the music endeared itself to millions with its quirkiness, catchiness, intelligence, and deft artistry. All of which has made the past few albums quite dispiriting indeed, with Around the Sun being the most recent disappointment. I will attempt to make my case by addressing standard cult reactions to negative criticism.
1. You didn’t listen to the album enough. It grows on you. There’s always some truth to this argument. Some albums really do take time to unfold and reveal themselves. And to be fair, some moments on Around the Sun do stand out on the ninth or 12th spin, though not to the heights they’ve reached before. “Make It All Okay” sports truly beautiful verses with the refrain of “didn’t you now?” before the wave breaks on a melodramatic chorus. Likewise, “Wanderlust” aims for a bit of pop atmosphere a la Wilco’s Summerteeth, and nearly gets there. But are these moments on par with “You Are the Everything” or even “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”? No, which leads me right into argument number…
2. You can’t fault the band for not repeating themselves, not replicating past albums. True, true. But Automatic for the People wasn’t brilliant because it sounded like Document or Murmur, because it didn’t. It was brilliant because it sounded like it grew right out of the ground. There was an immediacy in the performances, the arrangements, and the songs themselves that was compelling, and rings true to this day. The same is true of pretty much every album R.E.M. made right up through 1996’s underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi. However different the early and mid-period records are, they all sounded daring, fresh, and inspired in their own ways. Compare that to the lifeless “High Speed Train” which plods along in perfectly measured time for the longest five minutes I’ve ever experienced with the band. And for a chaser, “The Worst Joke Ever” replicates the numbing pace with an even more lackluster melody. There are unreleased tracks from the sessions, such as “I’m Gonna DJ” that could have provided counterpoint and perspective for the over-consistent tone here, but alas.
3. Michael Stipe once responded to critics of 1998’s Up by saying that if that album had been released as a debut by a new band, people would be rejoicing in the streets. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but they’d be a whole damn lot more excited then they would if the same was true about Around the Sun. Rumored to be a political album, it’s not. The album is about “I”, as in the personal pronoun. No matter what the topic of the song, the gaze is fixed doggedly at the navel. “Boy in the Well” starts right out with “Look at this, it’s me,” which kind of sums it all up. Even “Final Straw” is less about the evils of the current administration than sheer self-righteousness. “As I raise my hand to broadcast my objection,” it begins and then continues with its I’s, Me’s, and Mine’s. Political songs by definition are difficult to pull off, but the band has done it before plenty of times without the callowness of “forgiveness is the only hope I hold”. Behind these sentiments the band plays a familiar, coal-mining folk jangle that recalls both protest songs of yore and the band’s own musical past, but it doesn’t develop. Sadly, it sounds just like a simple prop to occupy your time.
Finally, we come to number four: don’t you have anything nice to say? It wouldn’t seem so, would it? But there are moments that feel right, that have a spark of energy, and don’t suffer as much from over-production and perfectionist tweaking. “Make It All Okay” is a fairly succinct torch-ballad. “Wanderlust” momentarily breaks the 55-minute album out of its torpor, and is the closest to recalling R.E.M.’s great capacity for un-studied wackiness. “I Wanted to Be Wrong” even appears to be a keeper here, looking outward rather than inward with “the basket of America / The weevils and the wheat” and “gold circle goat ropers and clowns”, and guitar effects and reverb that actually serve the songs rather than muddying them up. Though they seem to be working through a serious funk, these moments could very well foreshadow a return to form. Still, I suppose I’m out of the cult now, just another crass and jaded critic popping your birthday balloons and stepping on your new sneakers. But (lean in close now), trust me when I say: I wanted to be wrong.