THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Parts 42 & 43)


So this is the point in the series where we shift things everso slightly. I think you all know what’s coming. There’s no avoiding it, we’re examining the stage in R.E.M.’s career where its mere mention makes most fans cringe uncontrollably. And for that reason, we’re not going to draw things out – two posts, each covering two singles from the sheer calamity that is Around The Sun.

After the promise shown by the two new (or newish) songs on In Time, I hoped R.E.M. were back on track and would deliver a record far more worthy of their acclaim than the abysmal Reveal. So I went out and bought the lead single Leaving New York on the day of its release and kept my fingers crossed. When I played it, any enthusiasm I had just ebbed away.

mp3: R.E.M. –  Leaving New York

Leaving New York isn’t the worst R.E.M. single ever, but it’s so devoid of pretty much everything that ever made the band great in the first place. This was an R.E.M. song to be played on commercial MOR radio stations for 40-somethings who don’t listen to music anymore. It’s what a middle-aged covers band who play at weddings and bar mitzvahs would include in their set. It’s just… banal. Not their worst single, but maybe the second-worst lead-single to an R.E.M. album ever (after Imitation Of Life).

Maybe I’m being a little harsh and missing the context. Leaving New York is R.E.M.’s post-9/11 song in which the protagonist seems disillusioned with the city, the darkness and grief having taken over from the coolness, the glamour and the awe that used to be associated with the letters NYC. The melancholy now felt is realised in the song and I think that’s what I don’t like about it. It just doesn’t make me feel anything. The song itself isn’t terrible – the chorus is more than pleasant – but the fact it’s the album’s lead single and opening track tells a story. It is, actually, Around The Sun’s best song by some considerable margin.

Leaving New York was the last R.E.M. single I bought before I began plugging gaps in my collection a few years ago. This was the point I bailed.

Three formats were released in the UK on 27th September 2004 which may be the reason it got as high as #5 in the charts after its first week. Having said that, it dropped like a lead balloon after that. It was also the last time they’d get anywhere near the top 10 in the UK. The b-sides were live tracks, which again probably says all you need to know about the quality of material the band was churning out at this time. To be fair, most of Around The Sun was little more than b-side fodder.

There was a 7” picture disc (something I don’t think they’d done before), and a CD single containing a rather rough-sounding version of Rockville recorded in Oslo the previous autumn. Brace yourself Jonny – Mike Mills takes the lead…

mp3: R.E.M. – (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville [live]

A second CD included versions of more songs harking back to better days, captured around the same period. You Are The Everything comes from a soundcheck in Raleigh, NC and really doesn’t do this gorgeous song justice. These Days, recorded in Toronto, is the pick of the bunch, but even so, they’ve played it so much better.

mp3: R.E.M. – You Are The Everything [live]
mp3: R.E.M. – These Days [live]

For the album’s second single, a song that actually could have been something really rather wonderful.

mp3: R.E.M. – Aftermath

Again, not the worst R.E.M. single, but it’s lacking so much – a strong chorus for one – and is bogged down by the weight of an MOR production that made it sound dated even at the time. During my research for this piece, I read a comment from someone who reckoned if Bill Berry was still in the band, he could well have made the difference between Aftermath being merely an adequate album track and it becoming one of the band’s best-loved songs. Whether you agree with this or not, there’s no doubting what Bill brought to the band other than the drums, and I wonder if Around The Sun would have seen the light of day at all if he had anything to do with it.

A shame really, because I really don’t dislike Aftermath, I’m just completely underwhelmed by it. And to be fair, it probably is the second-best song on the album. But that’s not meant to be a compliment.

The single hit the shops on 29th November 2004 in two CD formats backed by more live tracks recorded during rehearsals in the band’s hometown in 2004. The first CD included a version of another Around The Sun song. High Speed Train is a bit of an odd one, I never could make up my mind whether it’s sort-of likeable, or just really boring. I think this take just edges the album version, probably owing to it not being so over-produced.

mp3: R.E.M. – High Speed Train [live]

As for CD 2? So Fast, So Numb is one of New Adventure in Hi-Fi’s real highlights, a bloody excellent song. It’s let down somewhat here by the rather perfunctory drumming and very bored-sounding backing vocals. All The Right Friends is one of R.E.M.’s earliest songs. They recorded it several times over the years but it never made it onto an album. It was revived for a movie soundtrack and was included on In Time, and as such made it back into the band’s live set. Of all the tracks we’ve posted today, this is the one you want.

mp3: R.E.M. – So Fast, So Numb [live]
mp3: R.E.M. – All The Right Friends [live]

While doing this series, I’ve made a point of listening again to each album when we reach that era. Reveal was very tough and I didn’t listen to Beachball because it’s so diabolical, but I did get through the other 11 tracks.

Just.

I had to turn Around The Sun off after 8½ songs as it is sooo boring, drab and uninspiring. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it all the way through in a single sitting and this was the first time I’ve tried to get through it in years. It was the first R.E.M. album I never bought. I still don’t own a copy of it, other than in MP3s that I *ahem* acquired at the time. I wasn’t going to pay for it, no way.

And to think, there are still two more singles from the damn thing to come next week……..

The Robster

13 thoughts on “THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF R.E.M. (Parts 42 & 43)

  1. I knew this day was coming . I know I am going to be a major outlier . Fuck it though . I love Leaving New York and would have it a comp of fav REM songs . So what if it’s MOR . So what if it has no edge . Sometimes smooth is good . I find the song moving ,the melody has that lovely melancholy feel that I like in my music and there is a plea in the vocals that touches a chord . Hi unlikely that anyone is going to shift their opinion after so long – but am I the only one ?

  2. Well done The Robster. Firstly for this epic Sunday rewind into REM’s past and also sticking with them until 2004. I bailed out about 7 years earlier…

  3. As Steveforthe deaf said, justified.
    I was amazed to find that I own the Cd of “Leaving New York”. I have no recollection of buying it. It must have been the quality of “Bad Day” that made me think “Reveal” was the nadir. Soon disabused of that!
    I bought “Around the Sun” (completism strikes again) and haven’t listened to it in years. With every other post in the series, I have gone back and used it as a reason to listen to the album – even “Reveal”. I don’t think I can face “Around the Sun”.

    Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised to re-listen to “Leaving New York”. There is definitely something identifiably REM about it. But if this is the BEST on the album…
    (the live version on the “REM Live” lbum is better due to being less swathed in washes of undistinguishable instrumentation).

    As fror Bill Berry being able to turn “Aftermath” into one of the band’ most-loved tracks…get him onto Climate Change immediately – the man is clearly “Superman” (despite Michael Stipe’s claims on “Lifes Rich Pageant”).

    Congratulations to Robster and JC for managaing the hard slog of managing to stick with most of the recent releases. Your posts are much appreciated. Salvation is around the corner.

  4. Leaving New York would also be on even a small REM best of for me. Around the Sun is pants, but LNY has a yearning and poignancy they only reached two or three times after Up.

  5. I’m not that familiar with Leaving New York but … I do like it. To me it has the ‘feel’ of a single; it definitely has a commercial sound (not a bad thing) but I wouldn’t describe it as MOR.

  6. Thanks for listening to these again to spare us the job. I’d more or less given up on R.E.M. by this point.

    Still don’t think Imitation Of Life is as bad as Robster does, especially in comparison to this album, one I’ve never been able to get all the way through. And again, poor quality major label B-side fan rip offs.

  7. Listening to these songs for the first time it’s hard to muster up any opinion. No life in them at all. If you didn’t know who the band were you’d turn the dial.

    @Robster: thanks for the heads up. ‘Rockville’ is in my REM top 5 and the thought of Mills bleating through it makes me shiver.

  8. I feel bad being so critical of a band who at certain points have meant so much to me and who are such a big part of my youth. I guess the higher you fly, the further you fall.

  9. A diehard REM fan, I like ‘Leaving New York’. But the album? Just my luck…I was able to use a few connections & get an advance copy, put it in the player…and was like ‘What IS this?’. Disappointing to say the least. Maybe 3 good tracks but an unfortunately forgettable album to me

  10. Totally with you on that. The album is pants though. Remember there was some talk of it being an angry album at one point when an early draft of the Final Straw was released as an MP3. But I’m sure the only anger came from the fans.

  11. First couple of listens to both singles for me and…they’re okay. I agree with Swiss Adam about the B-sides. I’m not adverse to live versions, outtakes and rehearsals, if they offer a strong performance or take the song in a different direction to the studio version. None of these deliver that and really highlight the paucity of quality material by this stage. One accolade, though: with this single, R.E.M. wrested my award for “blandest version of ‘Rockville'” from David Kitt (although the pedant in me notes that Kitt released his version a month after Leaving New York). And thanks for the 7″ picture disc photo: who knew Mike Mills had been replaced by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall ? No wonder the music was on a downward trend at this point…

  12. One of the most enjoyable posts and comments in this
    entire series. I’m a Leaving New York fan, but Around the Sun
    never did it for me either, aside from LNY, Make it all Okay
    and I Wanted to be Wrong.

    Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – I was eating an almond when I
    read that and nearly spluttered it all out such was my amusement.

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