When R.E.M. went into the studio last year to record its 15th album, the influential rock band didn't set out to make political statements or tributes to September 11 victims, but a recent first listen to Around the Sun revealed that is exactly what they did. After sifting through a handful of songs ranging from rock tunes to brooding acoustic ballads, the album's mood suggested itself, the band's members told Reuters. Around The Sun became about "capturing the feeling of what it's like to live in America right now," guitarist Peter Buck said. "We didn't set out to make a pointedly political record...but to me, the overwhelming feeling is sadness. Sadness for the families that have lost loved ones. Sadness for my children who have to grow up in a country where much of what we consider essential freedoms are disappearing." The album is due in record stores on October 5 in the United States and October 4 internationally on Warner Bros. Records, but the band was offering an early preview to reporters late last week.
The band eliminated the harder-rocking songs, making the final version a brooding affair that contains elements of every period of the band's career, including the familiar 12-string guitar chimes of their early music, the acoustic ballads of Automatic for the People and the subtle textured sounds of their last two albums, Up and Reveal. It also contains out singer Michael Stipe's most directly political lyrics to date on the song "Final Straw." "As I raise my head to broadcast my objection / As your latest triumph draw the final straw / Who died and lifted you up to perfection / And what silenced me is written into law." The band's politics will be put into action this fall when they join Bruce Springsteen and others on the "Vote For Change" tour to benefit the liberal MoveOn political action committee. "Given the dire situation we find ourselves in, it was inevitable that [politics] would creep into the music," said bassist Mike Mills. "As a citizen you have to do everything in your power to make things better, whether that's writing songs or playing the 'Vote For Change' tour." Stipe has been ambivalent about his role. "I always believed that music and politics do not mix," he said. "It's like oil and water. There are people who write great political songs. I'm not one of them," he said. "I tried for four months not to write political songs. Finally, I gave in." Stipe's lyrics are abstract enough to throw listeners off the scent, and Mills said they remain "open to interpretation."
R.E.M. wrote many of the rules for indie rock in the 1980s with a combination of jangly folk rock, punk attitude, oblique lyrics, and a stubbornly independent and tireless work ethic. When they jumped to Warner Bros., one of the world's largest record labels, their albums got more alternative and more popular with hits like "Losing My Religion," "Stand," and "Man on the Moon." But as the '90s wore on, their audience in the U.S. evaporated while overseas the band's popularity grew exponentially. It remains to be seen if Around the Sun can reinvigorate sales in the United States. Each of the band's last four albums sank lower than the previous one on album charts. Buck will not allow himself to be deluded: "I don't expect 18-year-old kids to go berserk and start dressing like us. Take Bob Dylan," he said. "In 1975 people thought he was going to be president. Now he plays 3,000-seat theaters. His last two records are the best things he's done in years. So I won't calculate who our audience is. I'll take whoever I can get at whatever level I can get them."