Truth be told, R.E.M. hasn't seemed quite right since drummer Bill Berry up and quit the group in 1997. His departure, two years after he suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm, marked the band's first personnel change in its then 17-year history.
Its remaining members -- singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills -- vowed to continue, although, they maintained, there would never be a permanent replacement for Berry. They've kept that promise, but they've yet to sound as musically sure of themselves as they did in their complete, original incarnation.
That continues to be the case with "Around the Sun," their 13th full-length album and their first since 2001's disappointing "Reveal." A dour album for dour times, this CD is similar in its melancholy tone to 1992's "Automatic for the People," yet unlike that masterpiece, this collection of songs lacks a similar gossamer humanity to redeem it.
Perhaps that's because this album is so low-key. "Leaving New York" opens the album with a certain wistful grandeur, and it sets the understated emotional tenor for just about everything else here. This is fine enough for a few songs, like "I Wanted to Be Wrong," but one keeps waiting for different musical shades to flash to vibrant life.
It never happens. Instead of the gorgeous, offbeat melodies that are R.E.M.'s signature, the songs here are swaddled in folksy gloom. Relationships, both personal and political, are at the core of many of the tracks, and as usual, Stipe avoids moon-June-spoon simplicity in his lyrics. But he gets no help from arrangements so desolate that Buck and Mills, both fine musicians who have always been integral to the band, are all but lost in the mix.
It's not just that the band steadfastly refuses to rock; save for gloriously noisy "Monster" in 1994, that's never consistently been R.E.M.'s thing. But this album is so downbeat it makes Coldplay sound like Missy Elliott. Even on "The Outsiders," a rap by Q-Tip is so inert and uninspired it's questionable why he bothered at all.
Granted, this is the band's first album since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as well as the two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shadows cast by these events are long and intense, and R.E.M (currently part of the pro-John Kerry "Vote for Change" tour along with Bruce Springsteen and others) addresses our altered, uncertain world in several songs, including "Final Straw." Though Stipe's lyrics remain enigmatic, there's little doubt as to the target of his ire in such lines as: "Now I don't believe and I never did/ That two wrongs make a right./ If the world were filled with the likes of you/ Then I'm putting up a fight, I'm putting up a fight."
Propelled by Buck's prodding guitar, it's a tough, haunting ballad, somewhat reminiscent of the band's 1992 song "Drive." But that welcome energy isn't sustained.
If this is the season of R.E.M.'s political discontent, where's the anger and fire in their music? Instead they sound lethargic, even resigned. "Around the Sun," isn't a terrible album -- it's technically proficient and perfunctorily crafted, but little else. For a band that once sang, "Talk About the Passion," there's very little evidence of anything remotely resembling real passion here.