- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2004

R.E.M.

Around the Sun

Warner Bros. Records

R.E.M. hasn’t called it a career, even though the band’s fan base shrinkage might suggest otherwise. The former alt-rock icons keep pumping out thoughtful, esoteric rock in the face of increasing disinterest, at least from the college crowd that was once its base.

That’s a shame, since a few rounds with R.E.M.’s new disc “Around the Sun” reveals there’s still melodic kick in these anti-war warriors. If “Sun” never rises to the challenge of “Out of Time” or “Automatic for the People,” at least it boldly argues against any premature obituaries.

The somber album never tries to convert the trio into the anthem rockers they once were, and more impressively doesn’t attempt any extreme makeover to fit onto today’s charts.

The band’s soggier moments, particularly the heavy-handed “Monster,” came when it transparently tried fitting in with the evolving musical world. R.E.M. is just fine as is, thank you.

The band, which continued as a threesome following Bill Berry’s defection in 1997, sorts through the turbulent times with, if not an optimistic eye, one sharp enough to see the complexities around us.

Yes, a peaceful mood permeates “Sun” and given the band’s current tour with the Vote for Change crowd, it’s hardly a stunner. What has helped make R.E.M. relevant all these years is how neatly they packaged their dense lyrics.

The anti-war impulses radiating throughout “Sun” never bonk us over the head. They are intimately embedded in the harmonies: tiny morsels for the blue staters to decipher and savor.

Let’s hope Green Day, with their oh so obvious “American Idiot” battle cry, is taking notes.

“Leaving New York,” “Sun’s” first single, is equally gorgeous and bittersweet, an atmospheric tribute to the wounded metropolis. “Electron Blue” picks up the tempo without sacrificing any intensity.

Other R.E.M.-worthy cuts include “Wanderlust” and “The Outsiders,” which caps with a cameo by rapper Q-Tip. What seems like a wasted opportunity at first blush matures into a clever coda.

“Around the Sun’s” sneaky hooks may not garner the attention of past R.E.M. outings, but listening to Michael Stipe wrestle with his and the globe’s demons is rarely a wasted effort.

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