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.
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……..