He’s Singing a New Tune

He’s Singing a New Tune

 R.E.M’s Michael Stipe tried not to write political songs, but finally gave in. Ritchie Yorke in New York reports.

Even Michael Stipe’s eyes are smiling. The R.E.M. lead singer’s face beams the delighted glow of an individual who has uncovered what feels like their true destiny.

He crouches down behind a bank of portable TV lights and rolls up a ciggie. He licks the paper and gazes philosophically out on the green carpet of Central Park, some 54 floors below.

The eloquent tunesmith, who has written some of the most compassionate and profound lyrics of the past two decades – think such epic odes as Everybody Hurts, The Great Beyond, Losing My Religion, Man On The Moon and Nightswimming – is clearly surfing through a huge day supporting the band’s 15th album, Around The Sun.

It’s mid-afternoon in Manhattan, a mere 12 hours since Stipe wrapped up the video shoot for the new album’s lead-off single Leaving New York, on the concrete plains of JFK Airport. Following a few short hours of rest, he’s back on the interview trail at midday, charming the world’s music media.

Tonight there’s a dinner with record company executives, then a flight to Athens, Georgia, where the band starts rehearsals for the Around The Sun tour. The tour will bring the outfit back to Australia for a series of shows in the major capitals in March/ April.

Acknowledging compliments, Stipe responds: “A couple of years ago, maybe a couple of albums back, I realised that as a songwriter in my 20s, I had been trying to capture a sense of timelessness in the music I’d been creating.

“The idea that a song would have a sense of timelessness to it 15 or 20 years later was very important to me. But now,” he laughs, “as a songwriter at the age of 44 and having done this for more than half my life, that’s no longer important to me.

“The thing that’s more important really is that our music is actually reflecting right now. I don’t really give a wet willie about what anybody will think 10 years from now. It simply doesn’t matter to me any more.”

He pauses to glance out the window as a gust of rain batters against the steel and glass. “As a musician and as an artist, I feel that I need to comment more on the landscape that we’re faced with in 2004. Not from a sociological or political point of view, but something that comes from an emotional place. That’s more important to me now.”

Around The Sun clearly brings the band’s collective emotions — and Stipe’s particular vision – into focus. As always, his lyrics cling to the cutting edge: “Memory fuses and shatters like glass, mercurial future, forget the past …” from Leaving New York.

“It was a song that just arrived,” he explains, with a wave of his arm. “It happened before I knew it. And every single person who’s heard Leaving New York has a different interpretation of what it means and what it’s about. I love that.”

Stipe explains that because of the additional time frame allowed through last year’s release of the greatest hits album, In Time 1988- 2003, Around The Sun benefited from having more new songs to choose from than any previous studio album.

Initially started as a non-political statement, Around The Sun ultimately emerged as being a pointedly political effort. “We wanted to capture the feeling of what it’s like to live in America right now,” guitarist Peter Buck says in a separate interview.

“To me, the overwhelming feeling is sadness. Sadness for the families that have lost loved ones. Sadness for my children who have to grow up in a country where much of what we consider essential freedoms are disappearing.”

Like a flock of other US contemporary rockers, R.E.M. members are extremely critical of the Bush administration. Tonight, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a key swing area in the forthcoming US presidential elections, R.E.M. is performing with Bruce Springsteen on the Vote For Change artist tour.

It’s the third of five shows they’re performing together in an effort to unseat President George W. Bush. R.E.M bass player Mike Mills later notes: “This unprecedented coming together of musicians underscores the depth of the desire for change in our country’s direction.”

Summing up the band’s outlook, Stipe observes: “I always believed that music and politics did not mix. There are people who write great political songs, but I’m not one of them.

“So I tried for four months not to write political songs and then finally I gave in. Now I’m happy to announce that America is into a period of great activism. People are hanging banners out of their windows, putting signs in their yards, wearing T-shirts that are provocative in order to feel like they have a voice. Now is a very important time in this country. And it just felt right to stand up and represent yourself.”

The result is a heart-warming and passionate album.