I Wanted To Be Wrong

June 30, 2008

I looked over the entries for all of the Around The Sun songs, and I was a bit sad to realize just how much I’ve slammed that album over the course of doing this project. My opinions haven’t really changed — I may have overstated my distaste for “Leaving New York” and “Final Straw,” but let’s face it, even if I give them a bit more credit, I am not ever going to love those songs. However, I would like for you to come away from this knowing that while I can’t fully endorse Around The Sun, I don’t think it’s a total failure. If anything, the frustration of the album comes from the fact that it’s a mixed bag, and a few really great songs have to share space with half-baked duds and unsuccessful experiments.

“I Wanted To Be Wrong” is one of the album’s unqualified successes. It’s a slow, pretty folk-pop ballad that attempts to reconcile a strong feeling of alienation from George W. Bush’s America and a sense of obligation to feel empathy for people the singer views as a destructive influence on his country and the world at large. It’s a very conflicted song, but it’s surprisingly low on angst — if anything, it comes across like a defeated shrug. There is certainly some anger in the lyrics, but it’s stifled and buried as the singer looks around, struggling to understand a culture that he barely recognizes, and openly rejects his identity and ideals. He’s trying to be fair, he’s trying not to be judgmental, but he can’t help it. Ultimately, his empathy is strained, but his frustration eventually hardens into the righteous, empowered fury of Accelerate.

Around The Sun

April 5, 2008

“Around The Sun” is the first title track of R.E.M.’s career, but ironically, it’s not particularly representative of the album that bears its name. Whereas much of the Around The Sun album leans on adult contemporary balladry and synthetic gloss, “Around The Sun” the song comes off like a hybrid of the folksy jangle of  the band’s IRS period and the solemn beauty of Automatic For The People.  It’s one of the few unqualified successes on the record; a number that allows the band to play to some of their greatest strengths as songwriters and as musicians. If much of the problem with Around The Sun comes down to the group overworking their material out of a fear of repeating themselves, this song shows just how unnecessary it is for them to be anything but themselves. It also goes to show how that impulse can lead to self-sabotage — there’s a moment halfway through “Around The Sun” where the tune could either get bigger, like “Man On The Moon,” or sorta drift away into a gentle reverie. They opt for the latter, and though it’s definitely quite lovely, it’s hard not to get the feeling that they deliberately kept the song from reaching its full potential.


February 17, 2008

In the context of Around The Sun, an album overflowing with somewhat plodding mid-tempo numbers, the cute, jaunty “Wanderlust” may as well be a full-on rocker. It’s a perky, light-hearted tune, and its presence smack dab in the middle of the running order is crucial to providing the record with a sense of emotional and musical dynamic. That said, “Wanderlust” may be amiable, but it’s not especially memorable in terms of its structure and arrangement — though one can make the argument that it’s like a distant cousin of “We Walk” from Murmur, it mostly just sounds like something John Brion might toss off in an afternoon. Almost all of the song’s charm comes from Michael Stipe’s vocal performance, which hits upon a peculiar, manic cheeriness when the song hits its emotional peak: “I want to kiss the astronauts when they salute to me! Me! Me! Me!” It’s an inspired moment, and it elevates the song from being merely likable to something quite adorable.

Final Straw

December 26, 2007

Although the song is full of textures and flourishes designed to keep it from feeling too static, “Final Straw” nevertheless comes off as a drab, monochromatic dirge. It’s sort of amazing to realize that it’s just barely over four minutes long — the song is such a tedious, repetitive slog that I was convinced the run time was closer to six or seven. That said, “Final Straw” isn’t exactly a failure. It does well to articulate a particular strain of solemn (self-)righteousness, and its flat structure evokes a sense of aggravated impotence. Basically, the piece is very successful in expressing an uncomfortable feeling, but that uncomfortable feeling isn’t particularly appealing in the form of a folk-pop song.

Boy In The Well

October 17, 2007

“Boy In The Well” doesn’t seem entirely out of place on Around The Sun, but it’s hard for me to get away from the impression that it’s essentially a New Adventures In Hi-Fi song that was written about seven years too late to make the cut for that album. Stark acoustic strumming? Check. Strict verse-chorus-verse structure with a particularly soaring chorus? Check. Slight appropriation of southern rock style? Check. A sense of place, but also movement away from that location? Check.  In terms of structure, it’s nearly identical to “Binky The Doormat,” and its tone is like a cross between “So Fast, So Numb” and “E-Bow The Letter.” It’s not a retread or a retreat, but it’s certainly an example of the band exploring a rather distinct style that they developed for one album, and then more or less abandoned.

“Boy In The Well” is another twist on the “Michael Stipe pep talk” sub-category of R.E.M. songs — instead of giving or receiving advice, the character in the song is following through, and getting out of a bad, dead-end situation and taking the initiative to pursue a new direction in his life with the support of his “new friends.” That support system is really key to the emotional content of the song — it’s a bit thrilling in the way that new possibilities and connections always are, but it’s also a comment on just how much the people from his past have failed him, or pressured him to bury his identity in order to gain acceptance. The verses play out like grim flashbacks, but the choruses are filled with the hope and excitement of discovering a way out, and a path to freedom.

Leaving New York

September 20, 2007

“Leaving New York” is unquestionably the worst opening track in R.E.M.’s discography, but despite my many misgivings about its content, style and form, it’s still a pretty decent tune. Actually, that may be the most bothersome thing about it — I want very much to dislike it, but I just can’t.

In very basic terms, “Leaving New York” stuffs the rhythmic free-verse style of “Country Feedback” and “E-Bow The Letter” into an Air Supply-esque power ballad. It may well be the single corniest song R.E.M. have ever produced, and frankly I’m a bit puzzled why the same band that makes a point of distancing itself from the goofy yet brilliantly crafted “Shiny Happy People” would not be even more embarrassed by something so syrupy and mawkish.

The words don’t exactly help matters — it may be novel to hear Michael Stipe sing such direct lyrics, but it’s not at all interesting when he alternates between intoning sappy cliches (“it’s easier to leave than to be left behind”) and jaw-dropping clunkers like “leaving was never my proud.” Ultimately the song is saved by a few reasonable hooks and the group’s competent craftsmanship, but all in all, it’s a step too far into unimaginative pathos.

The Worst Joke Ever

September 3, 2007

When I started this project, I figured this one would be easy —  “The Worst Joke Ever? More like “The Worst R.E.M. Song Ever,” ha ha! — but I’ve decided that approach is lazy, unfair, and actually kinda untrue. If I had to isolate the single worst song to appear on an official R.E.M. album, my pick as of right now is “Make It All OK.”  Don’t get me wrong, though. The song is undoubtedly a total dud, but it’s not embarrassing and misguided, just sort of clumsy and half-baked. It mainly fails because the band is simultaneously trying waaaaay too hard, and not at all. Michael Stipe’s words and vocals are awkward and unflattering, and even when the tune lifts up a bit, the track feels tepid and limp. Quite simply, it sounds like an unfinished demo slapped in the middle of a proper record, rather than relegated to the b-side of a single as it surely would’ve been in the old days.

Make It All OK

August 13, 2007

Oh dear…it’s R.E.M. Speedwagon.

Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay about how musicians like Coldplay and movies like Say Anything are all about presenting a notion that he described as “fake love,” i.e., a sappy, over-dramatic version of romance that plays into our most unrealistic expectations of actual relationships. Klosterman’s argument is essentially that idealized, aestheticized versions of love get in the way of most people’s ability to appreciate their own lives, but let’s face it, he’s no Guy Debord. Chuck buys into all kinds of art that sells an image disconnected from reality, so what he’s really saying is: “This wimpy, overblown sentimentality totally sucks.”

“Make It All OK” seems to exist as though to prove his point. Its sound is pure “fake love” — if there was a video for it, it would have to look exactly like an episode of Dawson’s Creek or Grey’s Anatomy. Actually, the song is so limp and saccharin that it barely seems strong enough to be a part of either soundtrack. Effective “fake love” songs operate on a ridiculous certainty of emotion, but “Make It All OK” is just a lot of snooze-inducing relationship drama. There’s absolutely nothing interesting about this song on a lyrical or musical level other than that it seems so completely out of character for the band in general, and Michael Stipe in particular. Where is the mystery? Where is the poetry? Where is complexity? Where is the dignity?

High Speed Train

July 5, 2007

I only seem to enjoy “High Speed Train” under certain conditions: The weather must be overcast, and maybe a bit too humid. I need to feel a bit bored and lethargic. And this is key: I need to be stuck in a mood that falls halfway between blankness and melancholy. If all of those factors come together, then it feels just right — the sluggish beat, the unashamed neediness, the horrible feeling that Michael Stipe is smothering his love with his sense of romance.  That said, I’m not at all fond of Peter Buck’s faux-Latin guitar solo. It always feels tacked on and icky, like someone touching you in an awkward place on your body out of nowhere.

The Ascent Of Man

June 4, 2007

It’s a bit counter-intuitive to think of R.E.M.’s recent flirtation with AAA and Adult Contemporary pop as being experimental in nature, but in the context of their body of work, it’s actually a rather bold (and obviously very polarizing) departure from their established character as songwriters and performers. “The Ascent Of Man” is one of the more positive and amiable results of their apparent attempt to make odd yet emotionally direct soft pop. For one thing, just try to categorize it — it seems so benign, but it doesn’t fit in with any particular genre classification — it’s elevator music with extremely inscrutable lyrics; it’s a defanged glam rock tune that’s been slowed down to a crawl; it’s ersatz white guy R&B with a chorus that tries to stuff in more yeahs than “Man on the Moon.” It’s almost painfully sincere, and then Michael Stipe quotes Popeye. Only a group of very talented weirdos could write a song like this.


May 12, 2007

It’s hard for me to hear “Aftermath” without getting the sense that the band either deliberately omitted a big catchy chorus, or just didn’t realize that the song desperately needed one. Technically, “Aftermath” does have a chorus (“now you’ve worked it out…”), but it feels more like a bridge or a pre-chorus. I mean, there’s no reason why the song couldn’t have had two choruses — they totally pulled that off on “Turn You Inside-Out” from Green, and it’s a pretty fantastic and relatively underutilized pop trick. As it is, “Aftermath” seems unfinished and overly static, as if it’s just jogging in place for four minutes of our time.

There’s a good chance that the group intended for the song to feel lost in a haze of hesitant okay-ness, but even so, the effort is tripped up by the plodding, thoroughly mediocre percussion on the track. The drumming on “Aftermath” is drab and perfunctory, and more than any other song from the post-Hi-Fi era, it shows just how much Bill Berry brought to the band during his tenure. Even without coming up with a second chorus, I have no doubt that Bill would have figured out some way to subtly adjust the dynamics throughout the song and keep it from sounding so incredibly flat and aimless. I totally respect his desire to retire from touring with the band, but can’t he at least be brought in as a songwriting consultant for things like this?

The Outsiders

April 9, 2007

The weirdest thing to consider about Around The Sun is that it’s actually one of R.E.M.’s most experimental works, especially for Michael Stipe. Think about it this way — at that point in their career, the band had covered a LOT of aesthetic ground, and so they could have repeated themselves, gone off in a self-consciously arty direction that would have impressed (arguably) all the wrong people, or they could play around with very uncool things — adult contemporary pop, protest music, extremely direct lyrics. There’s something very perverse and contrary about the way the band threw themselves into an exploration of musical normalcy, but for each song that either transcends or subverts its own dorkiness, there’s a track like “The Outsiders” that can’t escape a crippling blandness.

One thing to keep in mind about “The Outsiders” is that at least part of its problem comes from incredibly limp production, and that it’s actually a much better song when performed by the band in concert. The live arrangement isn’t much different, but the percussion is far more potent, and Peter Buck gets to indulge in some arty guitar noise, and that helps to lift the song out of its “atmospheric” faux-trip-hop rut, if not actually improve the composition. Surely the most damning thing I could possibly say about Q-Tip’s lame-ass guest rap at the end is that Stipe sounds much, much better doing that bit live, though that comment doubles as some very faint praise for Michael. It’s kinda sad to see that they learned absolutely nothing from the mistakes of “Radio Song,” but um, at least “Radio Song” had a really nice tune! “The Outsiders” never rises above the level of passable mediocrity.

Electron Blue

March 27, 2007

Whenever I try to give a simple answer to skeptical people who can’t understand why I enjoy so much late period R.E.M., one of the points I try to hit is that they’ve nailed a really specific type of song in the late ’90s and early ’00s. I don’t want to give it a cute name, but it’s essentially the “pep talk” song, in which Michael Stipe attempts to console some confused younger person, and tries to get them excited about their future. Some people might find this theme to be very sappy, but it’s something I quite love, and frankly, I think we all need more optimistic songs about the future.

Stipe’s words in “Electron Blue” bounce back and forth between straight-forward sentiment (“adventure’s laid it’s claim on you / it’s all you want to do”) and vague language (I’m not exactly clear on the literal meaning of “you run electron blue”), but the gist of it is easy enough to grasp. It seems to be about how being bold enough to dive headlong into the future can be an incredible high, but it can also become this thing that keeps a person constantly looking to the horizon and at a slight remove from their surroundings. It’s an empathetic lament — part of this person’s beauty is their sense of adventure, but there’s the sad realization that no matter what, you’re just a footnote in their wild life.

“Electron Blue” is pretty and mildly weird, and basically sounds like Peter Cetera in outer space. I realize that description might horrify a lot of people, but I find that aspect of the song rather charming. Though some other songs from Around The Sun can be a bit embarrassing, “Electron Blue” embraces its corniness in way that seems brave and inspiring, and ultimately, its oddball blend of assertive balladry, chiming piano, and washes of pastel synth tones doesn’t sound much like any other song that I’ve ever heard.