Artists usually describe the recording course of as a battle, however for guitarist (*19*), making R.E.M.’s unfortunate thirteenth album, Around the Sun, was extra like battle. A really particular battle, in actual fact, and one the band had publicly criticized for years. “It was sort of like the battle in Iraq,” he instructed SPIN in 2008. “We don’t know why we bought in there, we don’t know the way to get out, and we don’t know what we’re attempting to perform.”
That’s a fairly succinct description of how good bands make blah albums—on this case, how one in all the most revered bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s created what many think about to be the solely blemish on their catalog.
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R.E.M. was a flagship act that, over a 30-year profession, weathered the transition from the American underground to the international mainstream, which implies followers have a spread of very completely different albums to assert as their greatest. Nonetheless, just about everybody—together with Buck—cites Around the Sun as a low level. As with different Worst Albums By Nice Artists (St. Anger, Rock and Roll Coronary heart, Down in the Groove), there’s one thing fascinating about this type of failure and what it reveals a couple of band famend for its egalitarianism and longevity. It’s nonetheless their worst album, however with R.E.M. defunct now for greater than a decade, “worst” means one thing very completely different in 2023 than it did in 2004.
Nineteen years in the past, the band was previous its ‘90s heyday however had weathered sufficient storms to stay a world superpower, particularly in Europe. They’d soldiered on after founding drummer Invoice Berry left in 1997, they usually succeeded exactly as a result of they used that shakeup as a possibility to tinker with their sound and redefine themselves as a band. 1998’s Up, their first album as a trio, was a group of experiments, a backwards look at a few of their favourite music of the twentieth century: Brian Eno, the Seaside Boys, glam rock, and southern soul. Reveal, their 2001 follow-up, was extra centered: a breezy summer season album, a group of yard reveries. Each have been targets of naysaying however maintain up remarkably properly for a band in transition.
With Around the Sun, nevertheless, R.E.M. and producer Pat McCarthy misplaced all perspective, first by getting too distant from the materials after which by getting too shut. They began recording in early 2002, and in March 2003 launched a tough reduce of “Ultimate Straw” as a free single on their web site, days after the invasion of Iraq. These periods have been reduce brief early that yr so the band might tour and promote In Time, a brand new compilation of their Warner Brothers output. Along with readying two new singles and movies, they launched a world tour that began with a dash by Europe earlier than heading again to North America. Shortly after their final date, they flew all the way down to Compass Level Studios in the Bahamas to complete up songs that have been already greater than a yr outdated, then they moved as much as Miami to start out mixing. It was a tedious course of, with Michael Stipe and Mike Mills commandeering the mixer and a pissed off Buck reportedly skipping city.
In consequence, Around the Sun is a staid affair, overthought and unfocused, far too slick but in addition weirdly austere, as if they’d left most of the devices on the cutting-room flooring. There’s no lushness right here, nothing like the tight interaction on their early albums or the weirdness of Out of Time or Computerized. Each tune strikes roughly the similar tempo and tone; there isn’t one true rocker. A number of songs, notably “Boy in the Properly,” attempt to rev issues up, however can’t muster the momentum or disrupt the album’s plodding tempo. Additionally, there’s little or no of Buck’s guitar on these songs, presumably as a result of he bailed throughout mixing and couldn’t advocate for himself. He exhibits up right here and there, offering acoustic prospers on “Ultimate Straw” and “I Needed to Be Mistaken,” however he by no means feels absolutely current. It was virtually like R.E.M. had misplaced one other band member.
When Around the Sun met the worst critiques of R.E.M.’s profession, it should have felt like the finish of the world as they knew it—and that sense of doom amplified the album’s faults. It grew to become an albatross, a scandal the band members needed to handle and clarify in subsequent interviews. However, as Stipe sings on the album’s title observe, “Maintain on, world, ‘trigger you don’t know what’s coming.” Their follow-up, 2008’s Speed up, appeared like a direct response to the criticisms that they had confronted. It had heavier riffs, odder lyrics, precise rockers, and—most crucially—a sharper dynamic between the band members. It was all the pieces Around the Sun wasn’t: unfastened, bizarre, imaginative, joyful, enjoyable. They constructed on that basis with 2011’s Collapse Into Now, which grew to become their swan tune, despite the fact that it doesn’t have the solemnity of a farewell.
R.E.M.’s finish—in addition to its afterlife—modifications how Around the Sun performs in 2023. Now that we all know how the band’s story concludes, it’s simpler to ignore the album’s lows and respect the highs: The refrain of “Boy in the Properly” sounds extra bitter in its accusations, the synths reduce by “Ultimate Straw” to create a extra intense friction, Stipe’s vocals sound extra daring on “Electron Blue,” and the Spanish-style guitar solo on “Excessive Velocity Practice” appears like a nod to Steve Harley & Cockney Insurgent. It’s nonetheless too lengthy, too shapeless, however a unique sort of power emerges from these songs, a unique sort of rising motion that begins with “Electron Blue” and culminates in the bouncy “Wanderlust.” There’s a logic to those songs and their sequencing, even when it’s partially obscured by the manufacturing and mixing.
Maybe as a result of it begins with a tune known as “Leaving New York,” Around the Sun appears like their New York album. The town has at all times been a boomtown for Athens bands, together with the B-52’s, Pylon, and the Drive-By Truckers, and Stipe particularly discovered inspiration in the metropolis when he first visited in 1979. There are moments all through the album that counsel these songs are set in that metropolis, or the band is talking on to its inhabitants, or sketching its avenue corners and skyline, or just strolling alongside its sidewalks and down its alleyways. It’s an affectionate valentine, a mild reassurance to a metropolis nonetheless reeling even three years after 9/11. Maybe that is an album meant to be performed on headphones whereas strolling round Manhattan, no vacation spot in thoughts, selecting your route based mostly on which avenue would possibly maintain the most delights. Perhaps the music’s austerity is simply house so that you can add your personal sounds.
R.E.M. is reissuing most of its post-Berry albums on vinyl this yr, however Around the Sun, greater than something that got here earlier than or after, calls for a sprawling field set, one which digs deep into the vaults and finds outdated demos, discarded takes, unused mixes, and peculiar studio experiments. A few of their greatest songs didn’t even make the closing tracklist, like “I’m Gonna DJ,” which began as a dirge earlier than they livened it up on 2007’s Dwell and once more on Speed up. That set would inform a really completely different sort of story—a saga of fragmentation amongst buddies fairly than an epic of creativity and collaboration.
Failure will be simply as compelling as success, particularly for a band that took frequent dangers however not often stumbled. Around the Sun stays singular in R.E.M.’s catalog, which implies it nonetheless has new tales to inform us, new corners for us to discover.
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