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The sun shines on R.E.M.
Michael Stipe talks the talk and the trio walk the walk

As just about any R.E.M. fan knows, the band broke a big promise in the late ’90s when drummer Bill Berry called it quits and Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck opted to soldier on as a trio. Years before, Stipe had made it clear that R.E.M. would remain a band only as long as all four founding members agreed to continue. And when the first post-Berry album arrived, 1998’s Up (Warner Bros.), a number of R.E.M. fans weren’t sure that replacing Berry with a drum machine had been such a great idea. Even the less experimental 2001 album Reveal (Warner Bros.) didn’t dispel doubts as to the wisdom of R.E.M.’s continuing on. The band’s record sales reflected those doubts, and though they remained a powerful live band, you had to wonder whether the three-man R.E.M. were ever going to make an album that could hold a candle to what they’d accomplished as a foursome.

Coming as it does in an election year and hitting stores just a month before we decide who’ll be our next president, the new Around the Sun (Warner Bros.) seems doomed to be overshadowed by the events surrounding it. Along with Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band, Bruce Springsteen, and the Dixie Chicks, R.E.M. have been at the center of the "Vote for Change" effort to flood swing states like Ohio, Minnesota, and Florida with concerts allied with America Coming Together, a political organization aimed at getting out the vote in order to get George W. Bush out of the White House. That activity has only further pushed the music into the background. But once the election is behind us and people have a chance to sit back and familiarize themselves with Around the Sun, I think it will be viewed as a landmark album for R.E.M. — as the album where trio locate the same intangible chemistry that kept the quartet so vital for so many years. When Berry left the band, Stipe said something to the effect that a three-legged dog is still a dog — it just has to learn how to run. Now Stipe, whom I caught up with over the phone at an R.E.M. tour stop in Nashville, feels, "We’ve finally found our three legs. We’ve learned how to run again." We’ll find out this Friday when the tour hits the FleetCenter.

In retrospect, Up and Reveal can be viewed as transitional albums on which R.E.M. were forced to learn, in a very public arena, how to be a band again. And from the opening track of Around the Sun, "Leaving New York," a moody, minor-key mid-tempo rocker built on a foundation of guitar arpeggios, an indispensably melodic bass line, and Stipe’s typically cryptic yet emotive lyrics sung with Mills echoing certain key phrases, something feels different. It’s as if you could sense from the tone of Stipe’s voice or the interplay between Mills’s bass and Buck’s guitar that R.E.M. have regained their footing as the enigmatic yet accessible pop band who rose from indie-rockdom to the heights of major-label stardom. The heartfelt hooks and the crisp jangle of guitars are back; so is Stipe’s knack for compelling yet quizzical lyrics. As they did before Berry’s departure, new tones and textures, like the fuzz guitar that winds through "Electron Blue," turn up regularly, along with keyboards and even a low-key rap by Q-Tip (on "The Outsiders") as comfortable additions to R.E.M.’s sonic palette. But none of it sounds forced or uncertain, something that couldn’t be said of the two albums that preceded it. R.E.M. sound like a band again.

"When Bill Berry called us all together and said he wanted to quit the band," Stipe recalls, "he also said that he would stay in the band and be miserable if his departure was going to break up the band. As Bill put it, he did not want to be known as the jerk who broke up R.E.M. And so it really threw us. And it took a lot of soul searching. But the three of us realized that we wanted to continue making music together, so there was no reason we shouldn’t do just that."

Still, Stipe himself senses the change on Around the Sun. "The new CD is a return to a certain confidence and competence we used to have. I mean, Up is about two songs too long. We can all agree on that. To open with a song called ‘Airport Man,’ which is seven minutes of Eno-esque experimentation, is really cool. But you don’t want to hear it every time you put on the record. That record could have lost two songs and been a lot more cohesive. But it’s the sound of a band shattering apart and at the same time trying to bring a record together.

"Reveal is what it is. It was about one very singular thing, and that dictated certain things. It was about the promise of summer in my mind, and Mike and Peter jumped on that and got it. The way that we produced the thing was very conscious and very specific. What’s different about this record is that it much more kind of became itself. I think it speaks of the confidence we now have as a three-piece. The chemistry that we had taken for granted for 17 years as a four-piece wasn’t something we ever questioned or examined because one shouldn’t — you don’t sit down and analytically pick apart why four people have chemistry as songwriters. But when Bill left the band, we had to kind to sit down and figure out where our chemistry was for a while. And my proof to myself that that period has finally ended is that I’ve written more songs for this record than any record we’ve ever written, and I continue to write."

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Issue Date: October 29 - November 4, 2004
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