Athenian trio deliver alternative state of the union address on sombre 14th album

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Stars And Stipes

“This album is all about the war. This doesn’t mean that I think any of the particular songs are about the war or that any of the songs are protests over it. All I mean to say is…that there is an awareness contained within the mood of the album as a whole.”

That was Jon Landau, writing in 1967 about Dylan’s cryptic, elliptical John Wesley Harding. But his words might do just as well to describe Around The Sun. Certainly, the rueful, stately single “Leaving New York” gave the lie to the idea that this was going to be a batch of simple protests against “Ignoreland”. If the record leaves NY, it’s only to touch down in a hesitant heartland, a country bordered by regret and fear, where everything’s at stake. These 13 songs are sung by people exhausted by the trials of their country, haunted by ghosts of its promise, tentatively hopeful of renewal or reconciliation. While the record doesn’t shy from directly addressing the state of the union (an early draft of “Final Straw” was made available for download in protest against the invasion of Iraq), its strength lies in its willingness to dramatise rather than hector, in its fearful sympathies and quiet commitments.

Its secret motto might be Stipe’s line from 1985: “The thing to fear is fearlessness”. A key track here is “The Outsiders”, an eerie, spectral dream-song swirled in misty synths, remembering a “day that the music stopped”. There’s a storm coming, shadowy outsiders are gathering, and the singer has to take sides, but he’s “lost in regret”, fear “all across his face”. Fading out, his indecision is replaced by the determination of a rapper summoning up the spirit of Martin Luther King, repeating “I am not afraid”. And, suddenly, the song strikes a new chord of memory, and you might hear in the title an echo of King’s letter from jail in 1963: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Yet many of the songs here are sung by outsiders wavering on the point of becoming deserters. “The Boy In The Well” is a baleful, bushwhacked cousin of “Drive”, its singer walking away from a town going wrong, warning that the “water is rising, you know what it’s bringing… you don’t want to stay”. You can hear this note of exile and disgust in the high, weird grace of “I Wanted To Be Wrong”, sung by someone stuck in a Yul Brynner “Westworld” where “everyone is singing a song that I don’t understand”.

There are few upbeat moments on the record, which often recalls 1992’s Automatic For The People in its sobriety of purpose. There’s the crackling neon guitar on “Electron Blue” (a bad-trip flip of “Electrolite”), the oddly jaunty “Wanderlust” and the sweet AI Green blues of “The Ascent Of Man”. But it’s not without hope. You might hear a hint in the kitchen-sink drama of “Aftermath” where the radio stutters but “some sour song, it sets it right”, and cold comfort is found in making hindsight sense of dread and grief.

But the closer, the title track, offers an ambiguous earthbound prayer. It’s a prayer against quitting, to the possibility of a voice “strong enough to let me question what I see”. And when it fades out with a ringing “Let these dreams set me free”, you have to wonder: does the singer want to be free of the dreams? Is he exhausted by their demands? Or are they the only thing keeping him going? Around The Sun is rich enough to let you draw your own conclusions.