When Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry formed R.E.M. 24 years ago in Athens, their energetic jangle and confounding jumble of murmurings was appealingly alternative. Back then, they defined the so-called standard of "college rock," a challenging hybrid of punk, new wave and straight-ahead rock 'n' roll. But R.E.M. has since graduated from college rock.
Just as the band's fans have grudgingly settled into adulthood, R.E.M.'s career has reflected a distressing movement toward staid middle age over the past decade or so. Beginning with the brooding Automatic for the People in '92, R.E.M. has progressively matured. There's nothing wrong with artistic development; but in this case, growing up has sometimes meant becoming bland and predictable. After the departure of drummer Berry in '97, the band made three albums that are lackluster at best.
Around the Sun offers little relief from the midlife malaise of a band that has, in the past, produced timeless records. Stipe's lyrics retain their universal oblique appeal, offering up scenarios that can apply to both civic and sexual liaisons. But sadly, producer Pat McCarthy has managed to make R.E.M. — still a vibrant live act — sound slick, polished and dull on two consecutive albums now. Most of the maudlin melodies of Sun come across as watered-down versions of "Everybody Hurts," and the single "Leaving New York" sounds like a reworked version of "Man on the Moon." The album leaves listeners with many questions: Why are they using fake drums and keyboards? And why are they attempting hip-hop with Q-Tip on "The Outsiders"? (They already had KRS-1 on "Radio Song" in '91.) The only bright spot is the title track, which hints at the rustic optimism of '85's Fables of the Reconstruction. This suggests that even in the abyss of R.E.M.'s current direction, some hope remains. R.E.M. plays Sat., Oct. 23, at Gwinnett Arena. 8 p.m. $55-$75.