R.E.M.'s early years were marked with mystery: Singer Michael Stipe, hidden behind a curly mane, sang lyrics that seemed free-associative, when they were discernable at all. That strangeness, and the ability to spring forward with the occasional dizzyingly great pop song, constituted a large part of the Georgia group's charm. With each album, R.E.M. slowly emerged from its gauzy cover, becoming one of the most famous and revered bands on the planet. Just when it seemed to get more popular than diehard fans could have imagined, the group would peel back another layer, add some pop, and sell a ton of records.
On rare occasions, R.E.M. has tested its own limits and floundered: The rock moves of 1994's Monster still ring a bit false, and moments on 1996's New Adventures In Hi-Fi seem undercooked. But since they were made in service of a higher goal—finding the next layer, figuring out what R.E.M. should become—those moves always felt forgivable. On the occasions they really paid off, as on the band's first post-Bill Berry album, Up, the results could be staggeringly good; at middle-age, R.E.M. was making music as relevant and exciting as its early-youth material. Surprisingly, particularly in light of 2001's solid Reveal, the new Around The Sun may push the limits of fans' patience, though likely not much else.
In eliminating both the mystery of its early years and the restless spirit of more recent times, R.E.M. leaves just exactly what R.E.M.-haters probably felt the band made all along: midtempo, largely hookless adult rock. It's a shame to see the detractors proved right, but aside from the album bookends "Leaving New York" and "Around The Sun," Around The Sun does little to keep itself from drowning in a mire of thumb-twiddlers. Listening to an R.E.M. record shouldn't inspire a constant reach for the fast-forward button, but just about the only thing here that even inspires a raised eyebrow is the tacked-on appearance of Q-Tip on "The Outsiders," which marks the most incongruous guest rap on a rock track since, well, R.E.M.'s "Radio Song." Perhaps Stipe and company felt that Around The Sun would mark an adventurous move into the flatlands, or an experiment in removing all but the most basic elements of its sound to create something profoundly simple. Instead, it mostly sounds like indifference from a group that can, has, and likely will go miles deeper than this.