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Reserving the right to change my mind (on R.E.M. or anything else)

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Never trust a critic who doesn't on occasion double back on him- or herself. You live with music and your relationship to it changes. That is true of all of us.

Yesterday, an anonymous reader posted the following comment after my review of R.E.M.'s 14th studio album, "Around the Sun":

In 2004 you called "Around the Sun" the band's "best new album since the early 90s." Now it's "dreadfully dull"?

The implied question: How do I square those statements?

Here's what I wrote, in the introduction to one of half a dozen R.E.M. interviews I've done over the years, shortly after "Around the Sun" was released in 2004:

The band’s 13th studio effort is not a departure from the bulk of its canon, but that is part of its charm: As its members approach age 50, they have dropped the electronic experiments and the vain attempts to rock out which marred recent releases, focusing instead on what they have always done best: quiet, melodic, heartfelt folk-rock.

The harbinger of this return to its roots was “Final Straw,” the song R.E.M. released for free on the Internet when America invaded Iraq. The tune found Buck trading his Rickenbacker for an acoustic guitar and Stipe singing with more passion and conviction about the state of the world than he has since “Green” in 1988. When the rest of the album arrived a few weeks ago, it was just as vital.

Yes, Berry is still sorely missed, and Mills is oddly absent in providing his signature keyboard colorings and harmonic counterpoint vocals. But songs such as “Leaving New York,” “The Worst Joke Ever,” “Aftermath,” “High Speed Train” and “Electron Blue” are better than anything that R.E.M. has recorded in more than a decade. And while it certainly isn’t the creative force that it once was, it’s good to have some semblance of that group back again.

Now, I do indeed maintain that "Around the Sun" is dreadfully dull. So what happened?

Critics aren't really any different than fans -- that's why we became critics, because of our passion for music -- and I have been an R.E.M. fan since 1981. I very much want any new recording from the band to match the brilliance of the music it released from '81 through "Automatic for the People" in 1992. Very little of it has, though at first it has often seemed to.

As a critic, you receive an album advance a week or two before its release (at best; other times, you get it the day before). You listen as many times as possible, and then you present your emotional reaction in the intellectual form of a written review. (Some people would say there's very little intellect involved with some critics, but you know what I mean, I hope.)

After that, like any other fan, you live with that album for two weeks, two months, two years... and sometimes your opinion changes. Sometimes, you realize, "This just isn't holding up." For me, with "Around the Sun," that happened by the time I saw R.E.M. perform its long-awaited theater tour, during its stop at the Auditorium Theatre in 2004.

Now, when I reach for an R.E.M. album from the shelf full of them in my collection, there are half a dozen or more that I turn to first -- "Murmur," "Automatic," "Reckoning," "Document," "Green," "Lifes Rich Pageant," "Out of Time," even "Dead Letter Office" and a couple of sweet live recordings I've amassed through the years -- before even considering the likes of "Around the Sun," "Monster" or "Up." And I realize I'd be happy if I never heard those later discs again. Like new Rolling Stones albums, they now strike me as mere product issued to get the fans excited about the new tour, heavily hyped at the time, and initially well-received by fans eager for the band to reclaim its past peaks.

I considered the reasons behind all of this when I wrote about the band circa "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" in 1996. I swore then that I'd never be conned by R.E.M. again. And I was anyway. Such is the nature of being a fan.

Anyway, this time, I've been listening to "Accelerate" pretty much non-stop since I returned from seeing the band at SXSW. I didn't want to be snookered again. Before this new disc, "Around the Sun" was the best album the band had released since "Automatic," but that was never saying very much. Now, "Accelerate" has that honor, and this one I may even play again after the current tour. But to be sure, it still is not the equal of "Automatic" or any of the albums that preceded it.

News came yesterday that tickets go on sale for R.E.M.'s Chicago show at the United Center on June 6 at 10 a.m. on April 5 through Ticketmaster (with the usual egregious service fees tacked on) or at the box office (where you can avoid the fees); prices are $85, $65 and $37.50. Maybe the band will get it together to deliver better in concert than it did when I saw it a few weeks ago.

We can hope.

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Chicago Sun-Times/Sound Opinions pop music critic Jim DeRogatis gets called out by a reader for recently calling R.E.M.'s Around the Sun "dreadfully dull" when he originally called it their "best new album since the early 90s." DeRo responds: Reserving... Read More

15 Comments

Hi Jim, thanks for an interesting/intriguing response to that reader's question. As an artist/critic/R.E.M., I think the phenomenon of evolving opinions has been under-explored. For my own part, I've NEVER enjoyed any aspect of Around the Sun, although I've had to admit after recently purchasing the R.E.M. live disc, that "Boy In the Well" sounded much more exciting than it ever did--which made we wonder if the fault of that record was all in the production and arrangement. I'm still not convinced, but it gave me something to think about.

Two things: You really only get advances a week before the record comes out? Is that just in the newspaper business? (Mags get them way earlier than that.)

Also, small quibble, but your link says Chicago Theater (though it should be Theatre) while the review says Auditorium.

Jim DeRo responds: 1. Yeah, magazines get advances much earlier than newspapers -- though of late, and increasingly, there are no advances whatsoever, since record companies are so fearful of leaks. Ironically, journalists therefore go fishing for leaked music just like everybody else! And 2.) Doh! Yeah, it was the Auditorium. Both great theaters, despite their fondness for the high-falutin' spelling of that word.

Interesting read.

I, incidentally, had the opposite experience with ATS: it was the first REM album I ever disliked upon first listen. Sure, I loved "I Wanted to Be Wrong" and a few others, but by and large, the album seemed bland to me. But I do love REM, and I did go back to the album now and then. As I did, I found myself enjoying it more and more. It wasn't a case of me forcing myself to like the album--indeed, I'm still not big on "Worst Joke Ever"--but a lot of those other tracks became itneresting. "Ascent of Man," for example, is one I really warmed to. Same with "The Outsiders".

Just funny that we've basically trended in opposite ways on that album.

Jim, I'd be curious to see a few examples of records you gave bad reviews to, and then after they sunk in a little, you started appreciating more. (Poorly worded sentence, but you know what I mean.)

Jim DeRo responds: I think I was a little harsh initially on the Pumpkins' "Siamese Dream" and "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" -- just a little, like a star or half a star short -- because the lyrics annoyed me so much. Living with those discs, I've come to appreciate the sheer sonic bombast more and be bothered by the lyrics less... Life's a bummer when you're a hummer, despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage, etc. Or maybe I've just stopped hearing the words. In a similar vein, I had a strong aversion to the Cure for a long time, too. I've lightened up a bit on that, but only in small doses. Perhaps also Guided by Voices, though I still maintain that only one of three Pollard songs was really worth listening to, and it requires an undue amount of effort to wade through his absurdly prolific output to find the keepers. If someone would do that for me, I'd be a happy camper.

I see you still have your anti-Pollard bias.

Reading your 1996 article now is quite fascinating and ironic, particularly when the 39-year-old Buck talks about what he hopes R.E.M. will be when he reaches age 50 (he's now 51).

Before ACCELERATE, I would have disagreed with your statement that recent R.E.M. albums only function as tour souvenirs. Unlike the Stones, UP/REVEAL/ATS least *attempted* to move forward creatively. ACCELERATE is the first time they are self-conciously back-pedalling to reclaim their past identity.

Jim, do you think R.E.M. has become that nostalgia band that Buck swore to you in 1996 he was determined to avoid? I'm not sure they've have just yet. Yes, they play "Losing My Religion" and "Man On the Moon" every single night, but their sets don't quite *rely* on oldies the way a Stones show does.

I agree that perhaps one of every three Pollard songs is listenable. They guy releases everything, absolutely everything with littlee self editing. Of course the one out of three I prefer is probably different from the one out of three for Jim or most other fans.

Dude, accepting "one of three Pollard songs" is beyond generous.

Jim,

"Monster" is my favorite REM album.

I have no excuse.

-- SCAM
so-called "Austin Mayor"
http://austinmayor.blogspot.com

Hi Jim,
Please forgive the length of this post. I have to say that I greatly appreciated your response to the writer who questioned you about your original "Around The Sun" review. It was enlightening to see what goes into your process as a critic and you openly acknowledge what all of us music fans go through as the art of the music continues to reveal(no pun intended)itself to us. That said, I just have to disagree with you a little bit about R.E.M.'s output since 1992, especially after Berry's departure. I think that your take that their albums have simply become promotional items to sell their next mega-tour to be more than a little harsh and even unfair. Unlike The Rolling Stones, who have truly become musically irrelevant with thier new material, I just don't believe that R.E.M. is that callous. They have never struck me as being that kind of a band. I love the "Up" album and listen to it quite frequently. Its emotional murkiness and mournful weight not only felt like other somber albums released in 1998 (The Smashing Pumpkins' "Adore" and even PM Dawn's "Dearest Christian..." album) but I just think that it was the only album they COULD make at that time as they were reeling from Berry's absence. To me, "Reveal" was their conscious attempt to create a "Brian Wilson album" and it is still just gorgeous to my ears. For me, there was a shift after their release of two new songs for their "In Time" compilation, "Bad Day" and "Animal." I realized how much I had missed their energy, which is prominently on display with their live shows, and I felt that it was time for them to turn up the volume again. Then, "Around The Sun" was released and it was such a tremendous letdown. To be fair, I don't know if my own expectations came into play but that album just sounded so devoid of energy and life. It was crammed from one end to the other with defeat. It had no teeth. It had no passion. Now I think that after all of this time, R.E.M. is just incapable of making an album that is just BAD or unlistenable but I was afraid that they would lose musical relevance if they kept releasing albums of mid-tempo, half acoustic/electronic songs that were produced so much that they almost sounded hermetically sealed. The songs I have heard from "Accelerate" sound like a breath of fresh air and I am anxious to pick it up on Tuesday. I have no wish for them to go back and re-create what was because they can't! There will NEVER be another "Automatic," "Pageant," or "Document." I just want for them to enjoy what they are doing and believe in what they are doing and with "Around The Sun," I just didn't hear much of either. I gently urge you to check out "Up" and "Reveal" again.
Thanks for your time.
Scott

Thanks for the clarification about Around the Sun because I had seemed to have remembered the same thing.

You have been open and honest about your subjectiveness towards the band over the last 25+ years that you have been listening to them which is fair because you never claim to be an impartial audience. In your defense, I would argue that fans that got into the band in the 90’s with albums like Out of Time and Automatic for the People have a different impression of the band. However, the point that sticks with me all these years for many fans that you expressed on Sound Opinions was that “R.E.M. was the band that mattered” and that they were different than all the other bands out there. While age, popularity and stardom might have gotten to their heads a little bit, they did lead a path for bands like Radiohead, Pearl Jam and Nirvana to follow in their footsteps, something that has not been mentioned enough.

Your review also begs the question, especially in the internet age when blogs, etc. can post reviews daily as to whether music reviews will suffer because of it. We have sped up the course of time to the point where we are not able to properly digest music and figure out whether the hooks, melodies, and lyrics are something that is going to last us two weeks, two years or twenty. Is Accelerate the “Flavor of the Week” or is this album something that will improve over time?

As to the points of R.E.M., I have generally agreed with your points about Bill Berry over the years being a much bigger piece of the band than maybe we realize. As Peter Buck has mentioned in an interview somewhere, one of the aspects of Bill Berry leaving was his unwillingness to tour which led me to the belief that maybe the band should have treated the situation more in the lines of how Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, i.e. just working in the studio and bringing a drummer on tour with them.

However, it is more than just his drumming that has been sorely missed but his songwriting and specifically his insistence that songs have hooks. Between Stipes mumbling and the catchy melodies the band’s music was addictive. This album was the first Post-Berry album where we see songs that are most reminiscent of their early music. Consider over the last 10 years the best rock song the band released was “Bad Day” a song that had been written 20 years prior as the band moved to what I would consider dirgy ballads and elevator music more inclined for soccer moms.

And while Bill Rieflin is not Bill Berry, this is the first post-Berry album where the drumming feels like part of the song.

I think where Accelerate shows its promise is how this album was made. Many of R.E.M.’s great albums did not grow in the studio but the songs were roadtested and their studio time was limited affairs rather than drawn out yearly endeavors of constantly tweaking with the material. Most of R.E.M.’s great albums were made in this fashion and I would hope they remind themselves of this for the next album.

‘Accelerate’ is surely not the next ‘Murmur’, but then that is such a high standard for any band to live up to.

As long as we're on the topic, I need to use your argument against you on a similar topic. You point out, accurately, that opinions and tastes change over time, and an album that you once thought to be good can fade over time. At the same time, you hold bands to a different standard based on the interviews you've had with them over the years. Take REM, for example. You have killed them for 10 years for continuing without Bill Berry, because they once said REM will never take the stage without these four members. In your recent review of SXSW, you quoted Buck, talking about opening for The Police in 1982, saying, REM would never turn into a band like that. 1982 was over 25 years ago. People change and evolve. Hopefully, they grow a little. To hold Buck or anyone to something they said 25 years ago, or even 10, is a pretty harsh standard. My $.02

I would second what Scott said about "Up," with the exception of the last two dismal songs, "Parakeet" and "Falls to Climb." When it was released 10 years ago, I listened to it nearly every night for months -- something about the modern sounds and emotion connected with me, making it one of R.E.M.'s three or four best, up there with "Life's Rich Pageant," "Automatic for the People" and "Document." I have been digging the new record, maybe if only for the fact that it's 11 songs in 33 minutes. One question about it: In "Mr. Richards," my first take was that it somehow was vaguely about Michael Richards, the comedian/actor. Any thoughts on that?

I believe that Mr. Richards was more politically driven and according to the Huffington Post, Michael Stipe states: 'Mr. Richards' could be about any member of the current administration.' (Bush Administration)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-thill/ring-the-alarm-an-interv_b_94387.html

Based on those comments I think that Mr. Richards is about Dick Cheney, but I think that it's premise is not to attach itself to one person but relate to anyone that loses any sense of personal ethics and responsibility as a politician.

"Around ths Sun" was their best album since "Automatic for the People"? Huh? That album sucked and so does their new one. Seriously, give me "Electrolite," "All the Way to Reno," or "Let Me In" any day of the week over the soulless junk that they've churned out in the days since "Reveal" (which was no classic but had an interesting Beach Boy vibe that was nothing to be embarrassed about). "New Adventures in Hi Fi" was a very underrated work that had some filler ("Binky the Doormat" anyone?) but still holds up to the likes of, say, "Fable of the Reconstruction." And it's not like everything they did in the 80's was golden magic- "Swan Swan H," "What if We Give it Away?,"Second Guessing," "Hairshirt," etc. were hardly classics. I guess to each his own.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on March 27, 2008 8:46 AM.

Album review: R.E.M., “Accelerate” (Warner Bros.) [3 STARS] was the previous entry in this blog.

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