A new R.E.M. album is a comforting thing; R.E.M. have been around so long that everyone knows their sound and style, and they haven't really digressed from their traditional jangly guitars and lyrical pathos. Which, in other words, means Around the Sun is nothing spectacular or genre-bending or innovative; it's another R.E.M. album, with a twist of their older albums and more recent albums, kind of a like a leftover casserole that is surprisingly delicious in its familiarity.
"Leaving New York" kick-starts the record; the chorus crescendos on the line "leaving New York, never easy, I saw the light fading out." "Electron Blue" and "The Outsiders" are more modern R.E.M., with pulsing electronic beats and vaguely concrete lyrics like "Drawing patterns with a cork on a tablecloth." "Final Straw" is a traditional political R.E.M. protest song, a la Document and Out of Time. The first verse, "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," is quite appropriate, considering the events of the beginning of last month. "I Wanted to be Wrong" is very Automatic for the People, and the chorus of "Ascent of Man" is comprised completely of the word "yeah"--truly the mark of a good pop song. Yeah.
It's been said before that people like pop music because they know what to expect. The thing about R.E.M is that as predictable as the music sounds, lyrically, Michael Stipe can be vague and ambiguous enough to raise the songs to the next level, which is what keeps their records from being too cookie-cutter comforting.