The first few seconds of R.E.M.’s Around the Sun nearly retrace the opening to rock’s archetypal power ballad, Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” As the song, “Leaving New York,” continues, R.E.M. sound remarkably like multiplatinum-era early-Nineties R.E.M.— the band that knew how to combine diffuse lyrics and sonics with hooks and primal rock grooves better than anyone else.
On Around the Sun, that intrinsically R.E.M.-y vibe makes a tentative, muted comeback. Unlike 1998’s Up, on which the band crafted beautiful but belabored studio experimentation, and unlike 2001’s Reveal, where they relaxed but didn’t deliver many memorable melodies, R.E.M. here resemble their classic selves. On its way back home, the band takes the road less traveled. “The Outsiders” coolly floats on a syncopated drum beat that comes to a premature stop, then starts again for Q-Tip to resolutely rap a noble third verse. “Make It All Okay” puts piano to the fore of a strikingly direct post-breakup song. “Jesus loves me fine/And your words fall flat this time,” Michael Stipe argues, rejecting a lover’s offer to revive a relationship. On the title-track closer, the threesome builds to a humble climax, then fades away on a dreamy coda.
Around the Sun is full of what are ultimately anti-power ballads, the kind that question rather than bluster, favoring maybe over might. It’s another slow, meandering CD from a trio that refuses to fake a full recovery in the wake of drummer Bill Berry’s departure in 1997. It would be too easy for R.E.M. to ride Coldplay’s coattails on a rock-anthem remedy. They’d rather struggle on their own terms.