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ALT-ROCK

R.E.M. Around the Sun

When drummer Bill Berry left the band for health reasons following 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, it was the end of R.E.M. as we knew it. Now down to a trio, singer Michael Stipe, 44, guitarist Peter Buck, 47, and bassist Mike Mills, 45, haven’t been the same alt-rock heroes who defined many a college student’s generation in the ’80s and early ’90s with classics like 1983’s Murmur, 1987’s Document and 1992’s Automatic for the People (although, to be fair, the slide really started with 1994’s Monster). The trend continues with R.E.M.’s latest, Around the Sun, which goes down the same moody, melancholy and sometimes murky road the group traveled on 1998’s Up and 2001’s Reveal. At times, the CD is so doggedly downbeat it will make you long for “Shiny Happy People.” But Stipe and company have achieved splendor in somberness before (see Automatic for the People), and this disc boasts an elegiac beauty that is at once familiar and comforting in these uncertain times. The leadoff single, “Leaving New York,” is an achingly lovely love song that deepens with the poignant lyric “It’s easier to leave than to be left behind.” Elsewhere, R.E.M., which is on the Vote for Change tour with Bruce Springsteen from Oct. 1 to Oct. 8, turns political on the folky antiwar song “Final Straw” and the haunting “I Wanted to Be Wrong.” Guest rapper Q-Tip makes like a hip-hop Tom Waits on the cool-shuffling “The Outsiders,” while Stipe saves his most animated performance for the sprightly jangle-rocker “Wanderlust,” easily Sun‘s brightest tune. However, those looking for R.E.M. to make its All That You Can’t Leave Behind—the 2000 album that marked U2’s return to peak form—will have to wait at least another couple of years. Maybe by then Berry will be back on the skins.

DOWNLOAD THIS: “Leaving New York”