The Band: Michael Stipe (Vocals)
Peter Buck (Guitars & Keyboards)
Mike Mills (Bass Guitar & Keyboards)
Released: 2004 (Warner)
REM's 13th studio album is something of an enigma. As one of the many bands that have been speaking out against President Bush, and one that has recently been touring swing states, and also has a history of making political statements, you would expect this album to be similar to their Document
album. However, REM have carried on from where they left off with Reveal
, and effectively made an album of beautiful at times, repetitive at others pop songs that possibly leave the listener feeling somewhat unfulfilled. But then, given REM's rise from being one of the great American underground alternative bands to global chart toppers with Automatic For The People
, to them seemingly turning their back on this after the departure of drummer Bill Berry, this change should probably not be that surprising.
1. Leaving New York
. The first single off the album, and an undoubted highlight. This is a piano led song, with Stipe's trademark somewhat eerie vocals creating a brilliant love song, with one of the strongest choruses on here. Lyrically this shows that REM have continued their progression from very complex songs that left the listener wondering what was going on (Murmur anyone") to more simple lyrics, which are nonetheless effective. It also shows that REM has carried on becoming more of a mainstream band, although that was only to be expected. This also has a lovely bridge, when Stipe sings, "You find it in your heart, it's pulling me apart", before layered vocals come in. 5/5
2. Electron Blue
. This never really seems to get into gear, something which can possibly be said of the album as a whole, although this is one of the best examples of it. The song is heavily dominated by synthesized keyboards in the background, although it's built up into a decent song by some more gruff vocals by Michael Stipe, who has clearly lost none of his talent in conveying emotion with his voice. There's nothing special about it, but nothing to really criticise about it either. 2.5/5
3. The Outsiders
. Now this is more like the older, more adventurous and different REM. Following on from Out Of Time
track "Radio song", which featured rapper KRS-One, Q-Tip guests on this track. Before he arrives, it's a moody song which is another very strong story about the breakup of a relationship, something which the band has now turned into their trademark. Peter Buck has a very strong guitar part lurking subtly under the surface, but it really is Q-Tip that makes this. He comes out of nowhere after a mid-song breakdown, with the song closing with a repeated "I am not afraid". It's an amazing moment which works brilliantly, giving this song 4.5/5
4. Make It All Okay
. The intro to this song really reminds of me of At My Most Beautiful
, but it doesn't really reach the standard of that song. Although it builds well, with some really simple, but good chord work on piano by Mike Mills, the song doesn't really move on from a base that has real potential. It's more questioning than other songs, with lyrics such "When I saw you at the street fair, you called out my name, didn't you" Didn't you"", but just when Stipe sounds at his most accusatory, building the mood of the song, the atmosphere evaporates as the song slows to a standstill again. I find this infuriating more than anything else, and means I can only give this 2.5/5
, although it could so easily have been one of the best songs on here.
5. Final Straw
. This has more of a country vibe to it, with the intro being played out on acoustic guitar, and is also the most overtly political track on here.
Originally Posted by Lyrics-Final Straw
As I raise my head to broadcast my objection
As your latest triumph draws the final straw
Who died and lifted you up to perfection"
And what silenced me is written into law.
I can't believe where circumstance has thrown me
And I turn my head away
If I look I'm not sure that I could face you.
Not again. not today. not today.
If hatred makes a play on me tomorrow
And forgiveness takes a back seat to revenge
There's a hurt down deep that has not been corrected.
There's a voice in me that says you will not win.
And if I ignore the voice inside,
Raise a half glass to my home.
But it's there that I am most afraid,
And forgetting doesn't hold. it doesn't hold.
Now I don't believe and I never did
That two wrongs make a right.
If the world were filled with the likes of you
Then I'm putting up a fight. I'm putting up a fight.
Putting up a fight. make it right. make it right.
Now love cannot be called into question.
Forgiveness is the only hope I hold.
And love- love will be my strongest weapon.
I do believe that I am not alone.
For this fear will not destroy me.
And the tears that have been shed
It's knowing now where I am weakest
And the voice in my head. in my head.
Then I raise my voice up higher
And I look you in the eye
And I offer love with one condition.
With conviction, tell me why.
Tell me why.
Tell me why.
Look me in the eye.
Tell me why.
There's so much here that deals with the current political climate in America, that I thought putting the lyrics in here would be simpler than referring to individual lines, but clearly the political spirit of the band remains very much active. The song itself is gloriously moody, with it creating a real atmosphere over swirly keyboards. It's another strong point, and gets 4/5
6. I Wanted To Be Wrong
. The other "political" song on here, it's far calmer than Final Straw, which detracts from the song for me. Stipe's plaintive, semi-whined vocals don't really fit what he's singing, including the lyrics "We can't approach the allies 'cause they seem a little peeved", which means that this again suffers from a general fault of the album; REM would seem to be a band who at the moment struggle to break into full flow, but are still capable of making brilliant music when they do. 3.5/5
. This has got a more punchy intro, with the band members playing in unison, while Stipe shows off the fact that he really does have a voice that while, not technically perfect, contains a greater range and ability to move people than is immediately obvious. As one of the more upbeat songs on here, it's apparent that the band aren't just the one trick ponies that some people persist in labelling them as today, but the fact that this ends so suddenly is both surprising, and again slightly unfulfilling, as you can't help think the song wasn't really over. 2.5/5
8. Boy In The Well
. I would rate this as one of the weakest songs on the album, with it basically being another excuse for a Michael Stipe vocal workout, without there being anything to inspire the listener. Again, it features a synth keyboard backing that works well, but it's fundamentally a filler track that wouldn't be greatly missed if it had ended up being cut. 1.5/5
. Like Wanderlust, this is upbeat and more like some of the happier moments on the band's recent albums. In a way though this shows the fact that REM aren't really pushing themselves out of a stereotype they are falling into, since although these two songs are upbeat and faster than the others on here, they can't be described as "rock" songs in the slightest. It's a decent enough well-structured song though, and gets 3/5
10. High Speed Train
. Another slow song on here, this is spoiled for me by one thing; namely what I can only assume to be the intentionally poorly produced snare drum here which grates in the background. It adds to the gloomily eerie feel of the song, but I can't help feeling it would be stronger were it not for this one problem, as it showcases REM's ability at creating a mood that was so evident on Automatic For The People
11. The Worst Joke Ever
. Like Boy In The Well, I don't think this should be on the album. It doesn't really add anything, and is basically a reprise of some of the album's stronger moments, only without the sense of beauty that they had. It's a pretty boring song actually, which sounds like the band is forcing the music more than anything else. 2/5
12. The Ascent Of Man
. When the band pull off what they are trying to do, as they do with this song, it's brilliant though. Here the verse sounds like nothing too special, but then Stipe's glorious falsetto "Yeah" during the chorus, while Peter Buck sings in the background is one of the best moments on the album, and elevates this song above most of the others. Again Mike Millsís synth is to the foreground here as well, but this gets 4.5/5
13. Around The Sun
. Encapsulating the album's strengths and weaknesses, this is a very pretty song but one that leaves the listener asking "Yes, but what of it"". It's guitar oriented, unlike much of the music on this album, but still follows the same basic formula, and the band should probably have ended the album at the end of the last track. 3/5
If you add up the scores I've given individual songs here, you'll see that the individual track scores are greater than the final rating of 2 stars. There's a reason for this. While the songs are individually inoffensive, middle of the road music which are perfectly listenable, put together over an album, it's very unimpressive music. While this would be true by any objective standard, it's worse here. Why" This is REM. We didn't used to expect this sort of music from Stipe, Buck and the rest of the band. We got classics like Murmur
, and Automatic For The People
. REM were the biggest band in the world for a brief period of time, and for a reason. Here, they've been reduced to a monotonous band struggling to find what they're still doing making music, and that's made painfully clear by the weakness of what always could salvage even the poorest REM album-the songwriting. Given as prominent a target as the Bush administration, it's painful that the band could not only drop the ball, but then fall over it, making an album as forgettable as this.