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R.E.M. – Around the Sun

R.E.MAround the Sun Warner Brothers

R.E.M.’s 13th record opens with an echo of the Aerosmith power ballad “Dream On,” a song I doubt the Georgians ever covered, though they once did a hectic “Toys in the Attic.” Still, it’s appropriate, as these ex-indie heroes became arena gurus on the wings of their own power-sharing brand of power ballads (“Everybody Hurts,” “Losing My Religion”). Except for the noisy, underrated MONSTER, R.E.M. have been soft-rockin’ it in the free world ever since.

But after the tag-team perfection of Out of Time and Automatic for the People, returns shrank steadily, bottoming out on Up UP and Reveal, cybernetic affairs recorded after drummer Bill Berry’s 1997 retirement. Each had its moments (“Daysleeper,” “Imitation of Life”), but Stipe’s swoony yowl didn’t mesh well with the electronics employed, partly because his built-in drone competed with the digital ambience.

Notwithstanding the machine-kiss of “Electron Blue,” Around the Sun is R.E.M.’s return to folk-rock chamber music; still, this is a low-spark affair. Touted for its political themes, the album is more about loss of faith: in lovers, institutions, oneself. The topical songs (including last year’s Leonard Cohen-meets-Phil Ochs “Final Straw,” originally a Web-only giveaway) are pretty oblique; some are just plain awkward. “The outsiders are gathering, and a new day is born,” Stipe sings (on “The Outsiders”), before an MC cameo by Q-Tip falls as flat as KRS-One’s guest spot on “Radio Song” 13 years ago.

One gem is “Aftermath,” a country-rock number about crying in the kitchen. Indie rockers usually render such moments with sonic modesty, but like the best indie filmmakers, R.E.M. can make them sound huge. And then there’s “Wanderlust,” which struts like one of those Lee Hazlewood velvet-cowboy tales. “I wanna kiss the astronauts!” Stipe squeals on the bridge–a reminder of when our nation’s greatness was measured less by how well we killed and more by how well we dreamed. Evidently, he’s still losing his religion. Us, too.

Grade: B-