Album: Around The Sun
. . .
File Under Proud
I’ve often wondered about whether or not I would have disliked Around The Sun as much as I did had it been made by another band. And while each new record by an old favorite always brings that kind of challenge — how do you balance your history with the artist against your reaction to their new music? — my gut is there is are no circumstances under which I would have liked it, as the only songs that ever jumped out at me were the “Aftermath,” “Around The Sun” and the single, “Leaving New York.”
That said, I’m awful glad that Around The Sun, Reveal, and R.E.M. Live all exist, the turn of the century, proof positive that even the greatest bands can stumble for awhile, and those records threw the awesomeness of their first two decades into sharp relief and made their late-career renaissance that much sweeter.
Weirdly enough, I was in New York City when “Leaving New York” came out, dealing with a terrible case of food poisoning that got Rox & I tossed out in the pouring rain from a side door of the Ed Sullivan theater just prior to a taping of Late Show With David Letterman — not with R.E.M., but with Tom Waits — so it was ringing in my head the whole time, as even at their nadir, they could still write a helluva chorus.
You might have laughed if I told you
You might have hidden a frown
You might have succeeded in changing me
I might have been turned around
It’s easier to leave than to be left behind
Leaving was never my proud
Leaving New York, never easy
I saw the light fading out
Of course, Stipe got a bit of guff for “leaving was never my proud,” but to me, it was cut from the same cloth as “what you do between the horns of the day”, even if it was far more on purpose.
I’ve also often wondered if it was at least slightly inspired by the 1990 Bill Murray film, Quick Change, where the difficulty of leaving New York was a key plot point, though, of course Stipe is singing about the emotional distress of leaving, not the logistical distress.
The greatest thing about “Leaving New York” is also the most frustrating thing about “Leaving New York” — as well as the most telling detail about Around The Sun in general — the counterpoint vocals that start coming in during the second chorus. Of course, R.E.M. had been doing counterpoint vocals since the very beginning, and the way they weave “it’s pulling me apart,” “find it in your heart” and “change” around Stipe’s declarations of eternal love on the bridge and the whole final chorus is a masterclass in vocal arrangement.
Until you notice that it’s all Michael Stipe.
Outside of (maybe) singing harmonies on the main choruses, Mike Mills is nowhere to be found. And that’s just weird. It’s still lovely as all hell, and gets by because of that, but I think it keeps “Leaving New York” from the top tier of R.E.M. singles. Maybe Mike Mills (or Ken Stringfellow) (or Scott McCaughey) didn’t make it to the studio that day?
In any event, for live performances, they worked up a vocal arrangement that featured Stipe, Mills, Stringfellow and McCaughey, and I came very close to using the R.E.M. Live version because of that arrangement, but the massive stadium sound of that record subtracts more than the extra voices add to it.
In any event, “Leaving New York” suffered the same fate as pretty much all of R.E.M.’s post-Monster singles: loads of airplay on Alternative radio in the U.S., no movement on the Billboard pop charts, but a massive top ten single in the U.K. — their final one, as it turned out — but still.
Meanwhile, Around The Sun — whose songs were administered in all worlds, now known and hereafter devised — was the first R.E.M. album since Green not to crack the top ten, no doubt a symptom of the slew of bad and tepid reviews, and maybe even bad word of mouth. It would be nearly four years before they released another record.
“Leaving New York” music video
“Leaving New York” Live in London, 2004
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