It’s been exactly 10 years since the release of R.E.M.‘s last multi-platinum album, the grimy and roaring Monster. The years since have been filled with a series of disappointments and missed opportunities, and Around the Sun, the band’s eighth album under its longstanding relationship with Warner Bros. Records, is no exception. The album more or less picks up where 1998’s Up and 2001’s Reveal left off, mixing light post-alternative rock with the subtlest of buzzing electronic flourishes, while a few tracks, including the first single “Leaving New York,” hark back to R.E.M.‘s last great effort, 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Sun has been touted as R.E.M.‘s big political response to the state of the world, which would have been a welcomed return to form for fans of the band’s pre-major label days, but while war is reflected in Michael Stipe’s lyrics, it’s never directly addressed. It seems as if Stipe is going to take an explicit stance on the folky “Final Straw” (it opens with the lyric, “As I raise my head to broadcast my objection”), but ultimately “love” is his only weapon. (To his credit, Stipe gets a bit more specific on the very next track, “I Wanted To Be Wrong,” but his resolve is as faint as the band’s image on the album’s cover.) Aside from two semi-departures (“High Speed Train,” with its distorted drums and dissonant harmonic tones, the outstanding “Boy In The Well,” and “The Outsiders,” which features an unexpected rap by Q-Tip and a mouthful of a hook: “Drawing patterns with a cork on the tablecloth/Promising volcanic change of plot”), Sun is filled mostly with more of the pleasant yet unremarkable Triple-A sludge that has defined latter day R.E.M.
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