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.

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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.

Wanderlust

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.