It's hard to imagine any modern band that has made as durable and dramatic an impact on the rock world as R.E.M. Over the course of a remarkably diverse and prolific career, there are few avenues they haven't explored, seemingly without regard for outside expectations or commercial considerations. Few outfits -- U2 comes to mind -- can claim a signature sound that's so alluring and yet so adventurous.
Still, after the group's near dissolution during the recording of 1998's Up, and the subsequent, overwhelming indifference accorded its 2001 follow-up, Reveal, R.E.M. clearly has a lot to prove. Rather than returning to the quirky, off-kilter stance of those recent efforts, their latest, Around the Sun, provides a panoramic view of rich musical terrain, reinforcing the chiming, indelible sound that has carried them through the ebb and flow of chart success.
Around the Sun finds them teetering between anxiety and anticipation, borne by a sense of unspecified foreboding that's revealed here in the churning ballad "The Boy in the Well," the shimmering yet soaring "Worst Joke Ever," and the irrepressible refrain of "Wander Lust." That air of uncertainty reflects, in part, R.E.M.'s misgivings over the country's recent political direction, which were first voiced in "Final Straw," a track previewed on the band's Website at the outset of the Iraqi invasion last year that recalls the quintessential folk pop of Automatic For The People.
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Unlike, say, Steve Earle's recent tirades, however, Around the Sun's songs are metaphorical and accessible, buoyed by an abundance of alluring melodies and compelling choruses. That's especially evident in the opening track "Leaving New York," which recalls "Man On The Moon" in its near-instant appeal, and the string-laden "I Wanted to Be Wrong," which mutes its discomfort in a melody that's deceptively soothing and engaging. Likewise, the percolating vibe of "Electron Blue," "The Outsiders," and "High Speed Train" suggest a thread of cosmic consciousness that is eventually summed up in the title track, a ruminating ballad draped in a psychedelic sheen.
Unfortunately, some of these songs seem to retrace previous melodies, creating aural similarities that dilute their immediate, individual impact. However, that's a relatively minor complaint. Even if R.E.M. hasn't delivered the masterpiece their fans had hoped for after several disappointing efforts, the band can still lay claim to its best album of the past ten years. While Around The Sun doesn't quite qualify as a full revolution, it is still a welcome return to form.