I was asked in 2004 by Hotpress to review R.E.M.’s new album. It felt like a lot to be asked to do, mostly if not entirely in a good way. Those lead reviews of albums by superstars felt like a big deal, an opinion that might have attention paid to it—erk. I had done lead reviews on The Manics and and the Boos and The Stone Roses’ Second Coming, but this was the greatest band of my whole generation, Green being the album of my life to date. They were still huge and full of integrity and dignity. I remember picking up the CD in the International Bar and going OK: I guess I get to hear this first. I wrote a 9/10 Around the Sun review that was more favourable than essentially anyone else wrote. It got 5.2/10 in Pitchfork. I was a little embarrassed. Shit—did I over-rate them because I was so glad to be asked? Because I worshipped Buck, Mills, and Stipe so much? Well, yes and no. I just read over the review for the first time in eighteen years. I see where I was coming from. The record was downcast. It did not have a ‘These Days’ or ‘Get Up’ on it. There was no justification for the visceral infectious optimism of those Pageant and Green songs. Around The Sun was deflated with no soaring stadium choruses. Those choruses had not kept Republicans out. GWB was about to get back in because he started a war. The songs were crafted, subtle, bristling, even openly defeated—for now. My 9/10 was high but not daftly wrong. Pitchfork score? 7.84.
R.E.M. Around The Sun (Warner Bros).
On the day in November 1988 that REM released Green, George H.W. Bush was elected to office. It wasn’t supposed to work out like that. Michael Stipe liked to call him The Bush Fucker—pithy!—and that magnificent record was made in the hope that it would mark the quick death of the rotten Reagan years and the birth of something bright and fresh and new. “Get up! Get up!” they exhorted, and exulted.
Sixteen years on, we’re back where we started—minus, perhaps, the hope.
George Dubya concludes a first term that makes you pine for his deadbeat dad, and after giving the Republicans a reprieve for the ’90s—‘Ignoreland’ aside—REM had to say something. What Around The Sun says is you can’t keep your good side out indefinitely. It’s their most directly politically engaged work and their saddest, a lament for what America has lost.
The politics are of course personal: in the immobilisingly gorgeous single ‘Leaving New York’, Stipe grieves for 9/11. “It’s easier to leave than to be left behind / I told you / Forever / I love you / Forever / I love you,” he sings in a love song that can’t escape the times. Similarly, in ‘High Speed Train’, as uneasy backing vocals echo underneath him, Stipe declares: “I’d jump on a high speed train / I’ll never look back again / I’ll go anywhere for you”. And where would he go? “To Berlin, Kyoto or Marseille”. He didn’t pick those names out of a hat, Mr President.
Soon after ‘Leaving New York’ REM move from the obvious tragedy of that day to the capital made from it by the Bush/Cheney cabal. ‘The Outsiders’, ‘I Wanted To Be Wrong’ and ‘Boy In The Well’ all speak to the despoiling of first Iraq, then America, brought about by phoney wars. Again and again, the image is of dislocation, of living in a homeland that’s been stolen: “Everyone is humming a song that I don’t understand”.
‘Final Straw’, the centrepiece, restates this point and takes it further. It’s an open letter, brilliant and with balls of steel, to the neocons (‘Masters Of War’ anyone?). Stipe swallows hard and speaks the language of love and forgiveness through clenched teeth: “I raise my voice up higher/And I look you in the eye/ I offer love with one condition/With conviction, tell me why/Tell me why/Tell me why/Look me in the eye/Tell me why”. He won’t get an answer; but you feel that Stipe wouldn’t make such promises if all hope was lost.
Around The Sun is an album largely about language. There’s so much that needs to be literally stated that the music takes a back seat almost ‘til the very end. Then, after the reaffirmation of resolve that is the title track (“Hold on world cos I’m not jumping off”) some backward guitar plays, then goes quiet, then softly begins again, and for a minute accompanies Stipe as he hums wordlessly to himself, like someone just forgot to turn the tape off.
So Around The Sun, this confrontational, statesmanlike album, ends on a childlike note; a note of hope and quiet redemption. Sometimes desperate times call for delicate measures.
Niall Crumlish. 9/10.