The creation of a 10th symphony has been an impassable goal for classical composers. Beethoven feared for his life after completion of his ninth, and despite his vain efforts to the contrary (not numbering his eighth work), Mahler passed away during work on his 10th. While this effect is not as pronounced in pop music, it’s difficult to think of an artist who can remain consistently relevant after such a string of releases. It seems like more than a coincidence, then, that many consider R.E.M.’s 10th album, Automatic For The People, to be the beginning of the band’s long descent into mediocrity.
Around The Sun, R.E.M.’s 15th full-length, is easily the worst album R.E.M. has put out in their extensive career. Every tune is a bomb. Some mindlessly dry, vaguely political, bullshit served up with western guitars? Andrew Lloyd Webber piano-pounders? Slow-motion flamenco riffs? Embarrassing song titles? It’s all there, folks. Not only does Michael Stipe trip on single “Leaving New York” with the cringe-worthy lyric “Leaving was never my proud” (not a typo), he had the chutzpa (or disillusionment) to brag about his “creative use of words” in a recent interview. The stately Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest) guests on “The Outsiders” in an attempt to recapture the magic that occurred from KRS-One’s drop-in on “Radio Song” so many years ago. Though Stipe manages to create the atmosphere of Dalian surrealism his best lyrics induce, Q-Tip’s verse presents usually resilient hip hop as an art in its middle age, subject to the same excesses, confusions and temptations as R.E.M.’s fragile pop-rock. Whereas “Radio Song” was funky and subversive, “The Outsiders” is insular without intellectuality, maudlin without knowing why. Listening to the track gave me the firm impression that the music I once treasured is utterly dated.
More criminal is the absence of what made R.E.M. so damn awesome throughout the ’80s. The hub-tone rhythms and jangly guitars have fled for better weather since the departure of original drummer Bill Berry, but it’s a shame that Stipe’s arching voice is limited to one narrow octave. Mike Mills, who once contributed plenty of optimistic harmony, is nowhere to be heard, nor does multi-instrumentalist-cum-stewardess-beater Peter Buck contribute his considerable shaping abilities to the mix. It’s as if no one told the producer that Stipe had a backing band, or knew how to do anything but sing in a low, creepy voice; then again, perhaps he’s forgotten himself, having brainwashed the band’s decline into a demented sort of “reinvention.” Or, perhaps the album is calculated to appeal to those with bland tastes-a booming market in America these days. On these terms alone could Around the Sun ever be called a success.