Let’s face it. If R.E.M. had never formed, “alternative rock” or “college rock” as we know it wouldn’t exist. Sure other bands kicking around in the early eighties (like let’s say the Replacements) deserve some credit, but R.E.M.’s continuing influence alone is positively immense. Consider that elements of their sound can be found deeply embedded in the music of everyone from Nirvana to Toad the Wet Sprocket to Counting Crows.
R.E.M. have yet to release a bad album. I stand by that sentiment despite the fact that their last record, 2004’s “Around the Sun” was the weakest, most yawn-worthy of their career. Cut them some slack, though. That album may be slow and difficult, but if you give it some focused attention you’ll find that the band’s signature songwriting skills are still intact.
Many would argue that the departure of drummer Bill Berry in the mid-nineties left them soft and lost. The first Berry-less record “Up” (1998) gets a lot of criticism as being the beginning of the band’s downfall. I would disagree. In fact, like a synth-infused answer to “Automatic for the People,” I believe that record stands as one of their strongest, quieter statements. Listen to “Falls to Climb” and tell me that isn’t a stellar track! I dare you! Also “Up” makes for an interesting companion piece to Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece “OK Computer.” Of course, it pales in comparison, but listen to them back to back and you will find a common thread of haunted world-weariness and alienation.
“Reveal” arrived in 2001, and it too was labeled difficult. I must admit that besides the stellar single “Imitation of Life,” it took me more than a year to get into that record, and it was a year of hard work. Once I did, I found myself entranced by the album’s hushed, almost Stereolab-esque atmospheric elements.
So when “Around the Sun” arrived and was universally greeted with a sense of apathy, many were fearing that R.E.M. would never return to their old selves.
“Accelerate” was recorded obviously to prove those people wrong, and it does. (Does it ever!!) In fact, this new album shows us a side of the band not seen since the eighties. It’s almost like a lost record recorded somewhere between 1986’s “Life’s Rich Pageant” and 1988’s “Green.” At 34 minutes, it’s the quickest of all their 14 full-length records. (Only their 1981 debut EP “Chronic Town” is shorter.) Within that small time-frame though, the band delivers an economical batch of songs. There isn’t a loser in the bunch!
It starts off with a bang, with “Living Well is the Best Revenge.” The song is most reminiscent of the opener to “Life’s Rich Pageant,” “Begin the Begin,” only it’s about ten times harder. Michael Stipe’s hoarse screams make him sound like a man just jerked awake by an earthquake. Indeed “Accelerate” jerks the whole band awake. Peter Buck’s guitars are louder and fiercer than before, and bassist Mike Mills’ shouted, melodic background vocals are holding up the back just like they did on the early records. Substitute drummer Bill Rieflin finally gets to flex his muscles a little bit. (The guy was in Ministry! He is used to being able to be loud! He finally gets his chance again.)
“Man-Sized Wreath” continues the punk-like awakening. During the verses the vocals and the instrumentation work in a call and response pattern. Stipe sings a line and the rest of the band switches keys and plays an instrumental measure or two. It adds a sense of tension. In addition, Stipe is in full-growl mode here; half singing, half talking, but all venom and fuzz.
The single “Supernatural Superserious” is next and it adds yet another classic to the band’s ever-expanding catalog. Stipe is full of loopy references to “the summer camp where you volunteer” and “the séance where you first betrayed and open heart and a darkened stage.” Part of the joy of listening to R.E.M. records is trying to decipher his lyrical phrases. No doubt “Supernatural Superserious” is the best ode to awkward teen angst a bald, 48-year-old man can write. It’s timeless, and memorable. He is one of the strongest lyricists of our time.
“Hollow Man” sounds like it would’ve gone well on 1983’s “Murmur.” The only tell is that Stipe now doesn’t garble his words like he used to.
“Houston” is a folkish song in the vein of the “Life’s Rich Pageant” track “Swan Swan H.” Its heavy use of ominous organ recalls elements of “Green.”
The album’s title track is a dimly-lit rocker full of tension and woe. “Where is the ripcord, the trapdoor, the key? Where is the cartoon escape-hatch for me?” Stipe sings these words as if he’s really in dire need. For a title track this isn’t the most anthemic, but it does carry a sense of lift.
“Until the Day is Done” plays like a better, brighter version of the “Around the Sun” track “Final Straw.” On here, the slow songs still are packed with life and energy. Maybe the response to “Around the Sun” scared them a little, or maybe the credit belongs with producer Jacknife Lee. It is hard to say, but the band’s bounce is back.
“Mr. Richards” is a hard-rocking, psychedelic swirler, in the vein of their hit “Turn You Inside Out” only sunnier.
“Sing For the Submarine” is another folk-driven lament, which is made by the almost possessed-sounding backing vocal chorus which comes and goes throughout.
R.E.M. have hardly ever rocked as hard as they do on “Horse to Water.” “Star 69” from 1994’s “Monster” comes to mind, as does that album’s angry “Circus Envy,” but this song goes from being really menacing to being really catchy in a matter of seconds, thus once again recalling the band’s earlier period.
“I’m Gonna D.J.” takes the album out on a high note. It makes a profound statement for a band that has been so soft as of late to go out on a rocker. Reportedly this song has been kicking around since the “Around the Sun” sessions. Had it been on that record, it probably wouldn’t have sounded nearly so alive. It would’ve also stuck out like a sore thumb. Like “It’s the End of the Word as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” it’s a rambling, half-spoken vision of the apocalypse, only this time Stipe’s “collecting vinyl” to throw one big final party.
“Accelerate” is reason to celebrate. It stands as a late-career high point for a band full of career high-points. Once again I say that they’ve never released a bad record, but this one is great! Not every song rocks hard, but they are all winners. This is a must listen for any R.E.M. fan who thought they were through. You should be impressed.
R.E.M. are the most important American band still recording. It’s good to see them back in fighting form.
My question is now, what are the members of U2 now going to do to make up for the somewhat disappointing “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb?” (I say this placing “Vertigo” aside as an exception, of course!) I suggest they follow R.E.M.’s lead and actually deliver the full-tilt rock album that that record was billed as but wasn’t.