Thursday, July 20, 2023

R.E.M. – Around the Sun [Vinyl Reissue]

Once again partnering with Craft Recordings, R.E.M. is reissuing a quartet of late-era reissues on high quality, 180-gram vinyl: 2011’s Collapse into Now and 2004’s Around the Sun (both out July 14), as well as 2001’s Reveal and 2008’s Accelerate (both out August 25). 

2004 was certainly an interesting year to be an R.E.M. fan. While news that the band was in the process of recording what would become their thirteenth studio album (Around the Sun) was swirling about, they graciously tided fans over by releasing one of the best concert films of their career, Perfect Square. Recorded the prior year at an outdoor summer show in Wiesbaden, Germany, Perfect Square is an incredible snapshot of the band’s impressive ability to retain global rockstar status in their post-Berry iteration. It certainly helped that the Perfect Square setlist was not only rich with older favorites (for example, opening with a fantastic ‘80s-‘90s one-two punch of “Begin the Begin” into “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”) and updated classics (“Country Feedback” getting a stunning Peter Buck guitar solo and Michael Stipe peppering it with lyrics from Reveal’s “Chorus and the Ring”), but the cinematography of the day-into-night, “on the green” setting was a visually remarkable cherry on top. At the time, it certainly helped to drum up additional excitement for their forthcoming album as well. 

Then, as Around the Sun was being prepped for a fall release, the mid-tempo piano ballad “Leaving New York” was released as an early single to a surprisingly lackluster response. In fact, here in the states at least, “Leaving New York” received minimal radio play and became their first lead single from an album to not chart on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart since 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction. (It should be noted, however, that the song still became a Top 5 hit in the UK). Subsequent Around the Sun singles – the equally piano-heavy “Aftermath,” the trippy synths of “Electron Blue,” and the Beatles-like mix-metered bounce of “Wanderlust” – all faired the same; mid-level charting in the UK and veritable crickets in the US. Overall, critics didn’t much seem to know what exactly to make of the album. In later years, even the band themselves have been pretty blunt in their own assessments, with Stipe recalling that “in the process of recording, we lost our focus as a band” and Buck admonishing that it “wasn’t really listenable” because it was made by “a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can’t stand it anymore.” 

With all due respect to the band, Around the Sun has always been an “agree to disagree” situation with me because I think the album is packed with beautifully vulnerable songwriting moments and a charming, pro-level hand of restraint in the sonic coloring. As Perfect Square evidenced, the band still knew exactly how and when to crank into their singularly transcendent rock-modes and create idiosyncratic guitar-and-bass interplay riffing like few else. They had a celebrated two-decades-and-counting back catalog of it to pull inspiration from at any time. What they didn’t have yet was an album that managed to fully harness the confidence and ability to be intoxicatingly drifting and meditative without veering into aimlessness – which was exactly what many critics at the time failed to allow Around the Sun to be. As soon as Accelerate came out four years later, a general sigh of relief and chorus of “yes, they still got it” accompanied the well-deserved praise for that album’s genius (but that’s a story for another review). 

What this new 2023 vinyl repress of the long out-of-print Around the Sun might allow for is a collective reassessment of the album’s stunning vulnerability and self-assured meandering. While the original 2004 pressing of Around the Sun was already thankfully spread across two discs, the new 180-gram upgrade wonderfully grounds the sonic mix even further. Stipe’s vocals still feel securely nestled into the instrumental beds without getting muddied, and many of the piano and synth textures somehow feel a bit sharper. There was no remixing or remastering done for these reissues, but there’s definitely something about the vinyl quality that elevates the album’s overall sonic presence – especially in the background vocals of tracks like “Boy in the Well” and album closer “Around the Sun.” Once again, the impressive attention-to-detail work on the physical vinyl by Memphis Records and Kevin Gray of Coherent Audio can’t be overstated. The stalwart gatefold packaging feels nice and solid for the double-disc presentation, and the minimalist vibe of the cover art (subliminally echoing Stipe’s “lost our focus” assessment) carries through to the black-and-white, lyric-emblazoned printed sleeves. Overall, the stark-yet-sturdy production checks all the boxes; impressive
physicality without any gilded razzle-dazzle. Again, the most appreciated value to this welcomed and worthy reissue is the superb vinyl quality upgrade. 

Along with the standard black version from Craft, the band also released a limited edition opaque white variant on their website. 

Here’s a helpful link to multiple purchase options for all four reissues:

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