Critics, as a rule, aren’t too keen on bands of a certain age who refuse to die. Solo artists – a battle-scarred old coot like Neil Young, say – are allowed to trudge on more or less indefinitely. Reunions are permissible, especially if they’re by the Pixies. But continuity, marked by a dogged consistency, is usually seen as a rather unromantic, graceless way of cheating fate. When the tally of albums reaches double figures, your number (critically, if not necessarily commercially) might as well be up.
There’s frequently a good reason for this. Great bands depend on a peculiarly volatile chemistry, one which can rarely sustain creativity much beyond a decade. Money, family, complacency, a sense of being abandoned by fashion, a long-gestated animosity between the singer and the guitarist: all these regularly contribute to a decline in usefulness that arrogance – and a fanatically loyal fanbase – can only hide for so long.
For the past decade, REM have been cursed by such mutterings. From their commercial high watermark of ‘Automatic For The People’ in 1992, their continued potency as a live band (famously lording over Glastonbury in 2003) hasn’t entirely distracted attention from the diminishing sales of their records, last year’s lucrative greatest hits, ‘In Time’, notwithstanding. Had they split up in 1993, leaving eight albums of intense, allusive stadium folk-rock behind them, their position as one of America’s most significant bands would be unquestioned.
But what has happened in the past decade has, if not exactly sullied REM’s legacy, then certainly made their status more confused. Their four albums released between 1994 and 2001 have never been less than engaging, and 1996’s ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ stands as one of their very finest. But the responses to them were, in the main, equivocal, coloured by the assumption that such a venerable band were underachieving, if only because they were expected to underachieve.
The departure of drummer Bill Berry after ‘New Adventures…’ inarguably affected REM. It was Berry, far more than a tubthumper, who wrote the melody to their most enduring song, ‘Everybody Hurts’, among others. But still, 1998’s ‘Up’ and 2001’s ‘Reveal’ got a raw deal, as the remaining members – singer Michael Stipe, bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck – toiled hard to sustain a certain oddness, or at least an otherness, while being part of rock’s ruling gentry. “The acceptable edge of the unacceptable,” Buck once called his band. Even the most interesting edge of the acceptable wasn’t a bad place to be.
‘Around The Sun’, though, feels very much like a product of the establishment – and, perhaps, the first REM album to really disappoint. Their unlucky 13th, it purports to be something of a radical document, shot through with a disgust at the state of America and the policies of George W Bush. Curiously, though, it sounds like the band’s most conservative record, where that quest for otherness which had long made them the most imaginative and stimulating of stadium rock bands seems to have been abandoned for plush orthodoxy.
While REM’s imminent pro-Kerry tour with Bruce Springsteen may have all the insurrectionist rock’n’roll cachet of the Democratic party convention, it’s hard to criticise their political convictions right now. This autumn, it seems as if rock’s elder statesmen – Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, um, Green Day – are writing the indignantly charged songs that our newer heroes like The Strokes and The White Stripes have shied away from. As if, disappointed by the apathy of their juniors, the old-timers have taken it upon themselves to shake a stick or two at Republican atrocities.
Michael Stipe, to his credit, does this very elegantly on ‘Around The Sun’. While some of REM’s old songs ( ‘Fall On Me’, ‘World Leader Pretend’, ‘Ignoreland’) grappled with politics fairly directly, these are slippery, insinuating creations. Repeatedly, Stipe conflates echoes of Bush’s war rhetoric and his own frightened emotional responses with the politics of a relationship. “So am I with you or am I against/I don’t think it’s that easy/ We’re lost in regret”, he sings in ‘The Outsiders’, simultaneously paraphrasing his president and addressing an estranged lover. There’s a recurring image throughout the album of Stipe being alienated and scared by what he sees around him, of being torn between running away (“I jump on a high speed train”) and staying to fight for what he believes in, whether that be a love affair or a decent America.
‘Final Straw’, originally released online as part of an anti-war project last year, is less ambiguous. Stipe begins by raising “my head to broadcast my objection”, and laments that “forgiveness takes a back seat to revenge”. Again, though, the singer embraces moral complexities, understanding that his hatred of Bush as someone whose behaviour and culture he doesn’t understand is the same kind of intolerance for which he is condemning the President.
It’s typical of the sophisticated level at which ‘Around The Sun’ operates – as a protest album that strives to register its disgust in an original, adult and humane way. If only the tunes which accompany the sentiments were so artfully constructed. Ostensibly, ‘Around The Sun’ is REM’s equivalent to U2’s ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’: a glossy, calculated return to the gravitas of their commercial peak. The model here, inevitably, is the sombre brown textures of ‘Automatic For The People’, and in particular the way the piano ballad ‘Find The River’ hovered between melancholy (ie, we’re all going to die) and a hard-won optimism (but until then we must rage against the dying of the light with love and dignity, etc).
Occasionally, this works beautifully. The opening ‘Leaving New York’ is a small REM classic, all pensive jangles, hazy allusions to 9/11 and Stipe waking up to an uncomfortable new world: “I might have lived my life in a dream but I swear…” he babbles, then pauses magnificently, “this is real”. At times, though, the faintly familiar melodies seem to be stretched rather thin, while the glutinous production, with its emphasis on politely burbling synths, does even the better songs few favours. More problematic still, Peter Buck (who lives in Seattle while the others remain in Athens, Georgia) seems a bafflingly marginalised figure. Recent interviews with Stipe and Mills have mentioned how Buck spent his time in the studio programming everyone’s iPods with carefully-selected songs. Had he contributed more of his rumbustious, cavalier jangle to ‘Around The Sun’, it might have been a more satisfying album.
Instead, too many of the songs slide past in a controlled daze: dignified, full of the signifiers of vintage REM, but with little of the gristle or eccentricity. The pace is so relentlessly genteel that it becomes stultifying, though the variations aren’t too appealing either. ‘The Outsiders’ swings politely, a mumsy approximation of trip-hop that ends with a discreet rap from Q-Tip that would benefit from being more abrasive, more incongruous. ‘Wanderlust’, meanwhile, is grim, forced jauntiness that recalls that Oasis nadir, ‘Digsy’s Dinner’.
But then there are moments when REM can still juggle Stipe’s insights and their well-worn musical strategies into something genuinely striking, when their innate strength can overcome the uptight blandness of their surroundings. ‘Boy In The Well’ has a surprisingly bluesy swagger, a rare moment where the band lose their self-consciousness and let fly on one of those subtly anthemic songs at which they excel. ‘High Speed Train’, meanwhile, builds something hypnotic out of Buck’s distant feedback squall, recalling some of the experiments which punctuated ‘Up’.
REM, it’s clear, are far from a spent force. And the stately passion of Michael Stipe throughout ‘Around The Sun’ proves that their willingness to engage, to confront the 21st century and the iniquities of their culture, puts many younger bands to shame. “In a universe where you see the worst, it’s up to you to fix it”, Stipe decides, finally defiant, on ‘Aftermath’. If they could just swap some of that righteous eloquence for a measure of musical vitality, then REM would have surprisingly little to worry about. Unless, of course, Bush is re-elected.