This week, two venerated veterans of arty rock and roll, Tom Waits and REM, added to their already impressive discographies with highly anticipated records. Waits’ “Real Gone” is a dark, compelling record that matches the incredibly high level of his recent output. REM’s “Around the Sun” is a different story. The album is mired in monotony that would drive a fan of their early work to tears.
October has to be one of my favorite times of the year. Trees, for example, realize they’re in for an extended period of suspended animation, and in their last waking moments reveal a kaleidoscope. The same goes with the music industry; October is the month when the record companies pull out the big guns, unleashing some of the most anticipated albums of the year. Like a squirrel gathering nuts for the harsh winter, music fans scurry through record stores, hunting for the albums that will sustain them all the way through the long thaw. Tom Waits’ “Long Gone,” like his best work, is a record to grab quickly and enjoy through many seasons.
REM’s “Around the Sun,” on the other hand, is a glaring disappointment. The album, their 15th (and third without founding member Bill Berry), is especially devastating considering the band’s glorious history. Although there are a few moments of inspiration, they flash quickly and drown in the ensuing monotony. For the most part, the songs sound like things the band has been doing, and doing better, for more than six years.
As fans know, without Berry the band has suffered almost as much as Mel Gibson’s Jesus. Sadly, Michael Stipe and Co. have mostly been content to merely tread water, wasting their listeners’ time with stultifying mid-tempo meanderings. A radio ad’s jingle would be more fulfilling than the aimless banality of songs like “Boy in the Well.”
But even when they try a slyly smooth beat, as in “The Outsiders,” all is lost with an embarrassing verse from the once-brilliant rapper Q-Tip. The song gives Ace of Base a run for its money in the Worst Supplementary Rap category. I nearly broke my reading lamp jumping out of bed, trying to reach the stereo before anyone heard what I was listening to.
Despite its low-points, “Around the Sun” is graced with moments of unadulterated brilliance. “I Wanted to Be Wrong” is, without a doubt, the band’s most beautiful song since “Nightswimming.” And though “Leaving New York” might sound routine at first, its beauty shines through after a few listens.
A handful of other songs deliver on the publicity promising a politically charged album. The best of them, “Final Straw,” was released earlier this year, but its intensity and striking potency have not diminished. Everything clicks immediately, and sincere anger forces you to intone, “You will not win” along with Stipe.
With each passing album, REM emerges more and more as a band past their prime. They nevertheless remain capable of defiantly summoning enough strength to offer something fresh, however sporadic the inspiration.
While Michael Stipe’s vocal chords are as well-oiled today as ever, Tom Waits’ gravelly voice is enough to scare off a potential fan, if not a large animal. But by relegating himself to cult status, though one built upon a foreboding foundation, Waits has freed himself completely from the constraints of expectation. They say a tree born crooked will never grow straight, and one can assume the same about a Tom Waits record.
The songs of “Real Gone” continue upon his well-forged path of unconventional instrumentation, but most of the loud clutter has been cleared out. In the place of slide whistles and the twisted carnival sounds is a much more familiar instrumentation. The band is led by Marc Ribot, experimental guitarist extraordinaire, whose lead lines confound without confusing.
“Make It Rain,” the album’s best song, contains all of the characteristics of the singer’s best music. The music remains ominous but simple as Waits casually tosses off his chaotic poetry, snarling lines like “They sharpen their knives on my mistakes.” The album’s theatricality is maintained throughout, and its wildly creative sound attests to both Waits’ studio wizardry and masterful songwriting.
Tom Waits’ music has always been dark and menacing — but when it shines, it radiates with a gorgeous vigor. REM, by contrast, is famous for its glow. But when its luster fades, as it has for too many albums, one can only wonder how we’ll make it through another long winter.