Begin the Begin Again
R.E.M. Starts Another Trip on Around the Sun

All my furniture is gone.

I sold it all. I have not a bed to sleep on nor a couch to sit on. I have no tables, I have no chairs. I have a floor, a bedspread and a pillow. That’s all. My back hurts.

Final preparations for the Great Move of 2004 (as opposed to the Great Moves from 2000, 2001 and 2002) are proceeding apace. I have broken my lease, rented a truck, and once again boxed up my collected life. I have come to the conclusion, as I do every time I move, that I have way too much stuff. At present: 22 long boxes of comic books, seven smaller boxes of graphic novels, six big boxes of CDs, eight boxes of cassettes, and two boxes of DVDs and other sundry amusements. It’s a lot.

And I plan on getting more, too. Here’s a brief list of CDs coming out in the next few months that I am going to move heaven and earth to make sure I own: Elliott Smith’s final album, From a Basement on the Hill; Jason Falkner’s new EP Bliss Descending; Enuff Znuff’s perhaps-final album ?; A Perfect Circle’s two projects, Emotive and Amotion; the double King’s X live album; Neal Morse’s new One; Rufus Wainwright’s long-awaited Want Two; and U2’s horrendously titled How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. All I can say is, thank God for credit cards…

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Of course, no amount of financial distress was going to keep me from seeing Marillion on their first U.S. tour in eight years. My friend Jody and I went to the Washington, DC show, at the deceptively superb 9:30 Club, and feasted on three hours of auditory bliss. Steve Hogarth is an electrifying performer – he came out in an ill-fitting suit and tie for the claustrophobic “The Invisible Man,” slowly breaking out of this persona as the song built in emotional intensity. He has terrific stage presence.

Musically, the band has rarely sounded better to these ears. It was the first time I’ve seen them live, and the experience added new dimensions to the multitude of concert recordings I have. They played the one-disc iteration of Marbles all the way through as the first set, and it was splendid, even without “Ocean Cloud.” Watching the band play “Neverland” live is a life-changing experience. It’s pretty amazing.

Erik Nielsen, one of the vertebrae of Racket Records, booted himself from my Christmas list by taping down a bogus second set list full of older songs and numbers the band has never played. (“Built-In Bastard Radar,” for example.) When covering the fake set list with the real one, Erik waved off our joking complaints by saying, “You shouldn’t have been looking anyway!” Even with all that, the second set was extraordinary – “Living With the Big Lie” was a great opener, “Quartz” bobbed and weaved nicely, “Three Minute Boy” precipitated a scratchy singalong of the impossible high notes, and “Estonia” was beautiful. Three encores later, the band left the stage with a glorious “Easter.”

Among the funny bits sprinkled throughout was Hogarth’s rendition of one of his favorite Cat Stevens songs. The band happened to be on the same transatlantic plane that Yusuf Islam took to make his failed attempt at entering the United States, and they were diverted along with everyone else. Hogarth took the opportunity to poke a little fun: “Morning has broken, just like the first morning, I’m in a jail cell in Bangor, Maine…”

* * * * *

It seems that the up-and-down that is R.E.M.’s career is heading down again.

This has been a recurring pattern with the group since their debut. Not counting their first EP, Chronic Town, the just-released Around the Sun is R.E.M.’s 13th album, and of those, only four can be considered truly great. Murmur, their first outing, is still an amazing piece of work despite (or perhaps because of) its thin sound and frenetic energy. Fans had to wait three years and three albums before they delivered another one as consistent: 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, still their most complete rock record.

After that, the experimental phase kicked in, and the albums became hit-or-miss. That is, until 1992’s terrific Automatic for the People, a haunting acoustic record that may well be their best work of all. They followed that up with the atrocious Monster, and then weathered the loss of drummer Bill Berry. The trio of Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe carried on, though, with the dreary synth-mopes of Up in 1999.

Here is where I slip into heresy, however, because I still think 2001’s Reveal is a great album. It’s huge and lush and full of soaring Brian Wilson-esque melodies, yet tinged with sadness. As great as it was, though, I just knew that its follow-up would slip backwards into some as-yet-unidentified deficiency. It’s just the way this band works – they need to slog through the mud to find the gold. You’ll notice that none of the four great records I mentioned sound anything like the others, and that’s on purpose. R.E.M. is a restless band, and they are more than willing to put out three fair-to-middling records in order to dig for a new classic sound for the fourth.

The digging has begun again on Around the Sun. I had heard good things – that this was a natural sequel to both Reveal and Automatic for the People, that the melodies were sweet and memorable, that this was another great record. And I’m sorry, but I’m not hearing it. I can definitely hear what they were aiming for – this album is almost entirely based in acoustic guitars and layers of synths, like the strummier bits from Reckoning as produced by Moby. It’s as if the band is trying to go backwards and forwards at once, and the conflicting impulses cancel each other out.

The songs here are largely lazy folkers, appealing one by one but bland when stitched together. Opener “Leaving New York” is one of the most successful, melodically speaking, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the record. Most of these songs – especially the middle eight, from “Make It All Okay” through “The Worst Joke Ever” – blur together in a haze. Even the Beatlesque bounce of “Wanderlust” barely breaks through the gauze.

So the songs themselves are less than inspired, but with the right production this could have been at least engaging. Instead of highlighting the hushed tone of the songs, though, the band and Pat McCarthy have smoothed everything out and compressed it, and the result is a record that just lies there, passive and motionless. Automatic was a slow record, too, but the spare arrangements lent it an intimacy that R.E.M. has not matched since.

This is not a complete dud, you understand – R.E.M. doesn’t quite make those. There are flashes of brilliance here, especially (and surprisingly) Q-Tip’s cameo at the tail end of “The Outsiders” and the aforementioned “Leaving New York.” In fact, the album’s best song is its last – the title track builds and moves like nothing else here, crashing into its somber finale on waves of tympani rolls. If only they had written another 10 like it.

Since C-minus albums are part of their process, it seems petty to complain about the quality of Around the Sun. All this loping, overproduced meander really means is that R.E.M. has started on another quest, and in a few years (and perhaps one or two more less-than-terrific records) we should have the fifth great album of their career, and it will all be worth it. Kudos to the band for not giving up when Berry left, and for continuing to turn over every rock they can find. It’s just a shame that we have to get through albums like Around the Sun on the way to something wonderful.

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Final debate tonight, on domestic issues, which basically means that Bush should just not show up and spare himself the embarrassment. I am so happy that President John Kerry has shown up to both debates so far, as opposed to his long-winded, humorless twin, who did most of the talking throughout his campaign. But maybe Cheney will feed Bush better answers this time.

Tinfoil hat conspiracies aside, seriously, watch for yourself, and decide for yourself. And vote. Please vote.

See you in line Tuesday morning.