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.