Aftermath: Another look at R.E.M.'s Around The Sun 2

Aftermath: Another look at R.E.M.’s Around The Sun

There are people out there who think that Wolverhampton Wanderers went downhill after losing George Berry in 1982, when the cult hero defender left for Stoke City. There are also people out there who think than the same fate befell R.E.M. after losing George’s namesake Bill Berry from the line-up when he decided to leave the band after suffering a cerebral aneurysm on stage in 1995.

It was clearly a blow for the band, but an understandable decision for Berry, who happily made a full recovery and even went on to perform sporadically with the band, on special occasions such as their induction into the Georgia Hall Of Fame in 2006, and the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame the following year.

The band decided to carry on and took a markedly different, generally more relaxed direction for 1998’s Up, an album that on the whole received quite a rapturous reception, partly because it contained some really great songs (lead single ‘Daysleeper’ really is one of their best, for a start) and partly because fans were relieved to still have them around. By 2001’s Reveal, the fervour had dissipated slightly, though that record included some really great tunes (I’ll Take The Rain, The Lifting, Imitation Of Life). Were people in danger of starting to take R.E.M. for granted for the first time after the initial worry about Berry personally, and by extension, the prospects of the band itself?

Fast forward to Autumn 2004 and Around The Sun, an album that, in retrospect, is considered by many, quite frankly, a bloated and tuneless 55 minutes from a group who were grasping for ideas. It’s often quoted as the nadir of R.E.M.’s output and has even been the butt of (admittedly niche) jokes. It was the first R.E.M. album to miss the US Top 10 since 1988’s Green and the first not to yield a US Top 100 single since 1985’s Fables Of The Reconstruction.

Well, I’m here to argue its corner. As an R.E.M. fan who really enjoyed the band’s music without ever becoming a simpering Stipe sycophant, (I can happily name songs from their career that I don’t think are very good, and they aren’t all ‘Shiny Happy People’), I think that I am in a reasonable position to evaluate Around The Sun soberly and objectively. To try to get inside the album, and appreciate it fully, I would ideally have re-listened to it whilst walking around the sun, but as this turned out to be a logistical nightmare, I settled instead for listening to it waking around in the sun. Around the streets of the West Midlands, as I believe the band would have wanted.

As the gorgeously melancholic chord change kicked in at the start of first song and lead single ‘Leaving New York’, I already felt like I was listening to something special. For me, and I know that this is not a popular opinion, it’s one of the very best R.E.M. singles; it would certainly be in my personal Top 10, above the likes of Nightswimming, Man On The Moon and Radio Free Europe. Easily.

The other singles from the album did not set the World alight, to put it mildly, with only the UK sending the lovely ‘Electron Blue’ and the gently stomping (if that’s a thing) ‘Wanderlust’ into the Top 40, and even those only following a disappointing No. 41 Christmas showing for second single ‘Aftermath’, which has to be one of the least heard R.E.M. singles of all.

A highlight of the album is the atypical ‘The Outsiders’, a gently undulating song with a nice chorus and a beautifully laid back, yet at the same time impassioned, contribution from rapper Q-Tip, who pops up just before the 3-minute mark and carries the song to its conclusion. Stipe appears elsewhere performing the rap on an alternative version, and made the right decision to employ the A Tribe Called Quest star on the ‘proper version’ of the track.

So what is it that underwhelmed most journalists and fans alike about Around The Sun? Well, there’s certainly no ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’ or even ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ here, the album is quite introspective and downbeat in parts, and perhaps a little one-paced for some. Even as a defender of the album, I have to be honest and say that I would struggle to perform a whistled version of ‘The Ascent Of Man’ or ‘The Worst Joke Ever’ should anyone ever ask me, which probably isn’t all that likely, but still.

The title track though, hidden at the end of a 55 minute album (the curse of the late 90s and 2000s when people stopped thinking about vinyl limitations for a bit), is a beautiful song for those who stayed for it.

In summary then, to steal the rhythm of the title of the band’s greatest hits album, Around The Sun is Part Fine, Part Great, Part Forgettable… but I wouldn’t say Part Garbage. Perhaps you should give it a(nother) go.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.