Warner Bros - 2004 - 55 minutes

Oh dear. It was bound to happen at some point, but that still doesn't make it any easier. REM have released a poor album. There, it's said. And it hurts. One of the most vital bands of the past two decades seems to have run out of steam, but if that's not enough, the manner in which the hitherto most consistent band on the planet has come unstuck is singularly depressing.

'Around The Sun' is REM's first release since the sickening events of 11 September 2001, and if there was ever a band that you'd entrust with the task of articulating the political quagmire of post 9/11, it is REM. And so it is with crushing disappointment that you realise that the simple truth is that the band, and especially singer and lyricist Michael Stipe, has failed. If the REM that gave us, say, 'Document', still had the same creative vitality now, then 'Around The Sun' would be one of the best albums of the past decade or so. But this is the REM of 2004, not 1987, and on this evidence, past glories will remain just that, achievements to be marvelled at without ever expecting a reprise. 

And yet, to be fair, 'Around The Sun' is not a total letdown. Opener and lead single 'Leaving New York' is gorgeous, sustained by one of Stipe's best ever vocals, and nourished by that most precious of REM strengths, haunting vocal harmonies. The longing, Bush-bashing 'I Wanted To Be Wrong' also effortlessly makes the grade, 'The Outsiders' is low-key and moodily atmospheric, but other than that, only 'The Boy In The Well' doesn't fall flat.

But this is REM, a band instantly recognisable not just for some classic singles, but also for compelling tracks which remained buried on albums, far removed from the world of radio and fly-by-night ears. Here, those album tracks are pallid affairs, slick and lifeless and lacking the depth and sincerity which we've become accustomed to, and let's face it, spoiled by.

On reflection, perhaps it is only now that the impact of the departure of REM's erstwhile drummer, Bill Berry, is being felt. Granted, 2001's 'Reveal' was a fine collection, but nobody - not even the staunchest REM fan - could argue that the band has done anything better than 'New Adventures In H-Fi' (Berry's final outing) in the intervening eight years.

It would be folly to suggest REM are out for the count, but they are unquestionably on the ropes. It's a sorry sight to see a proud champion reeling, but let us not forget that they have given us some awesome rounds. For that, we owe them a misty-eyed standing ovation. It looks like it might be their last.

Tom Grealis

Tracklisting: Leaving New York - Electron Blue - The Outsiders - Make It All Okay - Final Straw - I Wanted To Be Wrong - Wanderlust - Boy In The Well - Aftermath - High Speed Train - The Worst Joke Ever - The Ascent Of Man - Around The Sun