R.E.M. hasn't been the same since the 1994 release of "Monster," a glam-rock-inspired misfire that signaled a shift from the group's traditional jangle-folk toward a more experimental, synthetic sound. Subsequent releases have seen the group trying to reclaim both its legacy and its audience, and not having much luck with either.
The new "Around the Sun" recalls R.E.M.'s heyday more than anything the band has done since, mostly because the group has shamelessly mined its greatest hits for inspiration. "Sun" unrolls like a slow, not unpleasant travelogue through its back pages, as performed by the most accomplished R.E.M. cover band ever.
The disc has a spare, somber feel that evokes -- indeed, it is plainly meant to evoke -- the group's 1992 masterwork, "Automatic for the People," and almost every track mirrors one found on another, greater R.E.M. album: The lovely "Leaving New York" recalls virtually any of its great ballads, from 1984's "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" to "Automatic's" "Try Not to Breathe." "The Outsiders," with its guest rap by Q-Tip, plays like the flip side of 1991's rock-rap curiosity "Radio Song." And the disc's subtle jabs at President Bush and the war in Iraq can't help but call to mind similar attacks on Bush the Elder made on 1988's "Green."
"Around the Sun" is as political an album as R.E.M. has made since, but then as now, the band doesn't really have the stomach for anything more than vague recriminations. Even the most pointed track, "Final Straw" ("There's a hurt down deep that has not been corrected / There's a voice in me that says you will not win"), sounds like a love song.
"Sun" traffics lightly in soul, rap and a weird sort of vaudevillian cabaret (the strangely perky "Wanderlust" would be perfect for Rufus Wainwright), though it's a lot more cohesive -- which is to say, duller -- than its influences might suggest. "Leaving New York" excepted, there's not one memorable melody to be found: Everything here sounds pretty much the same -- sad and slow.
After dabbling, often unwisely, in electronica and faux-'60s pop in recent years, the heavily acoustic, occasionally jangly "Sun" is the first R.E.M. album in years to actually feel like an R.E.M. album, even if it doesn't sound much like a group effort. With bassist and frequent harmony vocalist Mike Mills virtually absent and new drummer (and ex-Ministry member) Bill Rieflin reduced largely to the background, "Around the Sun" might as well be the inevitable Michael Stipe solo disc.
Unlike fellow hall-of-famers U2, who stumbled during the dark days of "Zooropa" but eventually righted themselves, R.E.M. hasn't made a comeback, exactly -- more like an attempt at triage. At this point, it might be wishful thinking to suggest that R.E.M. will ever again reach its full potential. Still, "Around the Sun" is the sonic equivalent of a come-to-Jesus meeting. It's the sound of a band trying -- slowly and fitfully -- to get back to where it came from.