Riddle Me This

Reckoning ÷ Crooked Rain Crooked Rain = Around the Sun?
Twenty years ago — let’s just pause and think about that for a sec, 20 years ago — R.E.M. released Reckoning. It was the much-anticipated sophomore release by the underground’s then-favorite sons of the South. The album made good on the kudzu-crusted promise of the band’s bewitching and ultimately confounding debut Murmur, radiating a murky but hopeful aura to an alt-world grown weary of punk’s safety-pinned doom and goth’s spider web of gloom.

“I’m the sun and you can read,” they sang, or at least that’s what it sounded like–you never knew for sure back then, and that proved to be an awful lot of their charm. And in the jingle-jangle morning of Reagan’s America, we came following them. Reckoning was full of secret maps and sepia-tinted legends, the autumnal ring of Rickenbacker guitars and the mesmerizing moon-river moan of Michael Stipe, delivering the promised fables of classic rock’s stylistic reconstruction to a post-punk world of shattered expectations, asymmetrical haircuts and skinny black pants.

Reckoning contained multitudes, alluding to the Byrds and the Velvet Underground, mining the backwoods mysticism of Southern folk art and wedding it to love-beaded mid-’60s folk rock to create a new atlas of blue-highway Americana. All across the nation, red-eyed sophomores clustered Indian-style around the dim glow of dorm-room lava lamps, separating seeds from stems, trying to decipher Stipe’s cryptic utterances.

Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg were two of those stoned sophomores passing the peace pipe in the warm wigwam of early-’80s college radio. A photogenic pair of smart-alecky sun-kissed California boys turned indie rock hobbyists, Malkmus and Kannberg put down the soccer ball and picked up guitars, bestowing cryptic nicknames on each other — S.M. and Spiral Stairs, respectively — and trafficking in noise and ambiguity to fill the void of melody and hooks that were still some years in the offing.Recording under the nom de rock Pavement, they released a pile of spazzy, dust-bunny-on-the-needle 7-inch singles, culminating in 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted, a bewitching but ultimately confounding debut that resonated with lo-fi crackle, hiss and pretty pop, not to mention jigsaw-puzzle visions of summer babes, fruit-covered nails and Loretta’s scars.

Slanted and Enchanted made Pavement the toast of indieland, and the rock literati soon dubbed its boyish members — with their precisely wrinkled shirt tails, stoner smirks and deep-well knowledge of rock-snob ephemera — alt-rock’s most elegant and eligible bachelors.

In 1994 — having switched coasts, trading suburban California sun for miles and miles of New York style — Pavement released Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, the much-anticipated sophomore LP by the underground’s then-favorite sons of the city.

Shockingly tuneful and self-assured, Crooked Rain contained multitudes, alluding to The Fall and R.E.M., mining the majesty of rock and cutting it with irony, enigma and slacker ennui to create a new covenant for a Lollapalooza nation growing increasingly weary of the macho gigantism of grunge’s vein-popping flannel angst.

“Songs mean a lot when songs are bought, and so are you,” Malkmus sang. All across the nation, red-eyed sophomores clustered Indian-style around the dim glow of dorm-room lava lamps, separating seeds from stems, trying to decipher Malkmus’ cryptic utterances.

Fast-forward to 2004. Pavement has long since disbanded into thirtysomething adulthood, elusive solo careers (or Korea, if you prefer) and horse-race handicapping. Matador has begun releasing 10th-anniversary bonus-track reissue editions of Pavement’s early canon. Following 2002’s Slanted reissue comes the snazzy Crooked Rain version 2.0, complete with all the attendant B-sides of the era and 25 unreleased tracks of beer-soaked basement jams, high-guy odes to Smile-era Beach Boys and the Jesus and Mary Chain, cool demo takes of Crooked tunes and embryonic versions of songs that would wow on Wowee Zowee, the album that came after.

Ten years later not one drop of Crooked Rain‘s hook-filled charm has evaporated. The elbows thrown at Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins, which raised hackles back in the day when the indie-vs.-major-labels debate had the suicidal intensity of a jihad, now seem as harmless as the Pavement boys always insisted. I mean, really: Billy Corgan? Scott Weiland? Like I could really. Give a. Fuck.

And “Range Life,” the rollicking country rocker from which those aforementioned elbows were thrown, emerges as Pavement’s defining moment, a reminder of a time when Malkmus’ obfuscating snark and grad-student sarcasm burned off like morning fog to reveal a shining path of sincerity. That’s foxy to me — is it foxy to you?

Included in those Crooked Rain bonus tracks is a B-side ode to R.E.M. called “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” in which Malkmus intones the names of songs from Reckoning. There is also a squint-and-you-can-recognize-it pisstake of Reckoning’s twilight mood-piece “Camera.”

Thankfully, 20 years into an impressive career in rock, R.E.M. doesn’t sound nearly as shambolic, but the new Around the Sun finds the band sounding a little weary from the chores of enchantment. With the late-20th-century departure of charter drummer Bill Berry, R.E.M. has carried on as a “three-legged dog,” as Stipe famously put it.

Aside from the intriguing foray into electronic ambience and Pet Sounds exotica of 1999’s post-Berry Up, you could be forgiven for concluding, based on the albums that came after — the flat-soda pop of 2001’s Reveal and the unrelentingly midtempo mopery of the just-out Around the Sun — that the dog don’t hunt so good anymore.

Once you get past the lovely, elegiac folk-pop of the album-opening “Leaving New York,” Sun‘s first single, things bog down quickly. Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Stipe, who lost his Delphic aura back in the late ’80s when he traded incantation for clarity and you could actually make out what the hell he was singing.

I liked him better when he just pretended to be deep instead of actually trying to be. Too many songs on Sun — all tastefully colored with piano tinklings, keyboard washes and gilded folk pluck, mind you — sound like the working script to some bad Sofia Coppola movie in which the hip young protagonists languish melancholically in fading romances set against an international jet-set backdrop of high-speed trains and chic restaurants. “Your rope trick started looking stale,” sings Stipe on “Boy in the Well,” and he could well be singing to the man in the mirror.

I’ve seen R.E.M.’s world up close, and it’s all five-star hotels that recycle and solar-powered limousines. And I’d never begrudge those guys the right to get stinkin’ rich from the high art they were capable of transmuting rock into when they were at the height of their powers — or even just stinkin’ drunk on airplanes. But they’re millionaires locked in a bubble of climate-controlled luxury, long removed from the heat and friction of ordinary lives that make for music worth listening to.

In the end you have to choose between the mansion on the hill or the art in the streets. And the only time the twain shall meet is when art is hung over the sofa in the mansion on the hill. That’s a gross overstatement, of course, but that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that when you get to a certain tax bracket and the zip code that comes with it, you can’t go back to Rockville again.