Song of the Day #690: ‘The Ascent of Man’ – R.E.M.

Three and a half years after Reveal failed to set the world on fire, R.E.M. released their most disappointing album yet — 2004’s Around the Sun. Oddly, I have sort of the opposite reaction to this record than I do to Reveal… I find myself wanting to like it even as the songs fall flat. I guess it’s the part of me that likes rooting for the underdog.

It’s also the part of me that wanted to believe that one of my most beloved bands hadn’t simply lost it. Two disappointments in a row following a strong but very out-of-character album… it seemed as if the loss of Bill Berry really had fundamentally changed R.E.M. This was a new band, and a worse one.

Around the Sun is simply lackluster. The songwriting is lazy, the performances are lazy. Even Peter Buck, a few years after the CD’s release, had this to say about the record:

“[Around the Sun just wasn’t really listenable, because it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can’t stand it anymore.”

Now there’s a quote for the ad!

Despite all of that, the album does have its highlights. Two centerpiece tracks — ‘Final Straw’ and ‘I Wanted to Be Wrong’ — tackle the Bush administration and the Iraq war in a powerful and non-preachy way. And… ok, apart from today’s SOTD, that’s about it.

But as for today’s SOTD… though it appears on R.E.M.’s worst album, I consider ‘The Ascent of Man’ one of the band’s best songs. And I can sum up the reason why in just six words: “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.”

The song is beautifully performed and produced and has a nice melody, but it’s really all about Michael Stipe’s impassioned chanting of that simplest of choruses.

That chorus, and this song, almost — almost — wake Around the Sun from its malaise. But the real wake-up call would have to wait several years.

So hesitation pulled me back
I’m stronger when I don’t attract
In your eyes I’m a lamb without a rack
And I am getting confused.
I’m a cactus trying to be a canoe.
As you pan for ore
In the desert, floored,
I say to you.

That I could never imagine a place so beautiful
I could never steal your gold away.

Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah…

[I try to walk like a big wham bam
I came across like a battering ram
I try to float like a telegram sam
I’m trying to divine you. ]

My book is called ‘the ascent of man’.
I marked your chapter with a catamaran.
The accent’s off,
But I am what I am.

Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah…

[I try to walk like a big wham bam
I came across like a battering ram
I try to float like a telegram sam
I’m trying to divine you.]

I looked for you, it’s my last grandstand.
A motorscootered goat legged pan
Figure eighting in quicksand…

Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah…

[I try to walk like a big wham bam
I try to float like a telegram sam
I came across like a battering ram
i’m trying to divine you. ]

[I try to walk like a big wham bam
I try to float like a telegram sam
I came across like a battering ram
I’m trying to divine you. ]

So hesitation pulled me back
I’m so in love I don’t attract.
And with my hands tied I won’t crack
[’cause in my mind I called you back.]

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2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #690: ‘The Ascent of Man’ – R.E.M.

  1. Dana says:

    Eh, this song doesn’t do it for me. I kinda see the appeal of the chorus, but the songwriting here seems lazy.

    Hard to really believe this is the same band that produced such innovative songs as “Can’t Get There From Here,” such pop masterpieces as “Losing My Religion” or such gorgeous songs as “Night swiimming”

    I know you want to root for them, but do you seriously consider this one of REM’s greatest songs? Really?

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