Well, this is a pleasant surprise. Score one for the old guys!
It’s maybe better to think of this album as being made by a totally new band, aside from the sweet backing vocals and, of course, Michael Stipe. The jangle is gone! The gimmicks are (mostly) gone! The overcomplicated production is gone! Instead we’re left with a record by a bunch of 40-somethings that sort of… rocks? It’s weird to write and feel, but this is the first R.E.M. release in forever that gives me that turn-the-volume-to-max feelings, as well as that sing-along-the-first-time-I-hear-it feeling, albeit periodically.
It’s like R.E.M. were the band featured in a movie about an aging band of rockstars. They’re awesome and cool, then they give up being poor for being worldbeaters, then spend a decade making increasingly tired and orchestral records in an attempt to recapture the old magic. Then they see a mystic, played by Jack Black, who tells them “just play some fuckin’ songs, man!” Then the scene opens to a stage at Carnegie Hall and the band plays opening track “Living Well Is The Best Revenge”, their best rock song since 1989 or something.
Lyrics? I think most of them are left-wing political yelling, aside from the obvious single about being a bored teenager in a small town. But there’s no sign of a weepy “Everybody Hurts” or artsy “I’ve Been High” here. Instead, they’re a band-like band, and one unafraid of singing the word “complicatedness” unironically. Plus, they take chances like young people, even if not all of them work. Having a main hook be a two note squeal? Sure! Ending the album with consecutive two-minute rock songs, even if one of them is crappy half-rap? Yes! A riff that sounds suspiciously like Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid? Who cares! Fake piano opening? Yes and yes!
There are a few songs here that just kinda play – “Sing For The Submarine” is a five-minute meh that’s still better than all of Around The Sun for referencing about ten old R.E.M. songs and having a cool title, and “Until The Day Is Done” is an unremarkable acoustic number, and the title track’s no great potatoes either, but the other songs are actually good, I can forgive it, writing songs seems hard!
It’s okay to feel weird about a bunch of aging, rich, white dudes sounding like a rock band and getting away with it, but if it feels better, imagine they’re not CEOs in their spare time. There’s too much goodness here to get bitter – what makes a rock album good? Hooks! Tempo changes! Originality! This album has all of those things, and it’s charming as an album, not as a “comeback album” or a “big bowl of bees and bandaids” or god damn it I’m unemployed again.
8 / 10