April 13, 2007
“Saturn Return” may not sound much like any other R.E.M. song, but it’s a dead ringer for a Tori Amos number circa the late ’90s. Like most Tori tracks from that era, it is essentially a slow piano ballad filled out with ambient noise and looped synthetic percussion. The band had already dived headlong into fully electronic compositions on Up, but for some reason, even though an acoustic piano is foregrounded in its arrangement, “Saturn Return” still seems like a severe departure from their established aesthetic. It’s hard to say why. Maybe it’s the fact that the vocal melody is as blatantly Tori-esque as the arrangement? Perhaps it’s got something to do with the vaguely aggravating sound of a referee whistle that cycles in and out of the drum loop?
The song has a very lovely melody, and though it works on its own terms, its placement at the center of Reveal does the record few favors. Once it begins, the album’s sluggish pace grinds to a halt for five long minutes. Michael Stipe sings the line “Saturn is orbiting nothing” on the chorus, and the music seems to echo that concept by sitting in a sort of holding pattern for the entire duration. If that’s intentional, it’s rather clever, but to be honest, the effect is rather dull.