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Featured Album: Accelerate by R.E.M.


There’s been barely but one album on my CD player these last three weeks: Accelerate. I’ve been falling in love with R.E.M. all over again.

I wasn’t sure this would happen. My relationship with R.E.M.’s music for at least a decade, maybe fifteen years, has felt like a stalled marriage: still friends, still fond of each other, but with no excitement, no magic. There comes a point where you have to wonder if you’ll ever rediscover that magic – or whether you should just file for divorce and find a new lover.

The issue of when things went downhill for R.E.M. is one of mostly subjective opinion, depending, to a large degree on where and when you came to the party. As someone who got on board when the train first pulled into the European station, I firmly believe that four of the first five albums were classics, that Out Of Time and Automatic for The People fully deserved their multi-platinum success, and that things have never been quite the same since they went back out on tour with Monster, trying to get their heads around the fact that their little band from Athens had become one of the biggest groups in the world. (Those who only got on board in the 1990s are entitled to a different view.) The departure of Bill Berry – the under-rated, understated heart and soul of the band – after New Adventures in Hi-Fi sounded the death knell in so many ways, but the remaining trio nonetheless persisted, largely at Berry’s insistence. Their first album without him, Up, was a brave experiment that I thoroughly admired, but though the mid-tempo ballads set Reveal was a phenomenal success almost everywhere but America, where it tanked, I struggled to enjoy more than its singles, and those only in isolation; and as for 2004’s Around The Sun, other than the first two perfectly pleasant but by now formulaic mid-tempo ballads, even the band now agrees it was tedious.

“Honestly, I had problems with that album the day we finished it.”

said Michael Stipe in a recent on-line interview. (Sorry: I’ve lost the link!)

“We had gotten into some bad work habits, taking forever and not trusting our instincts. I felt it isn’t who we are as a band and as people. We were working in a way that didn’t play to our strengths.”

In other words, they recognized that they’d grown (collectively, if not individually) fat and lazy. They’d reached the point where they could tour, lucratively – and convincingly – on the back of their magnificent catalogue, forever. But along the way, they’d come to coast in the studio. Well, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to climb back up.

Accelerate: Fall in love all over again.

You could tell there was a new sense of urgency about R.E.M., a realization that they had lost almost all their American record-buying fans and were on the verge of losing the European ones too, many months ago. Perhaps you felt it when they decided to host rehearsal “sessions” in Dublin in front of an audience. Or when they made available online footage and tapes of those shows. When they released a live album/DVD. (A very disappointing live album/DVD, I hate to hasten to mention, but an attempt to engage the fans nonetheless.) Perhaps you only caught wind that R.E.M. had returned to their raucous and rough-edged power-pop around the point that the new album’s title, Accelerate, was announced. Or when the track-listing was revealed: eleven songs in under 35 minutes. (Reveal and Around The Sun, by comparison, spread their 12 and 13 songs respectively across an almost interminably equal 54 minutes.) Or when you heard first single “Supernatural, Superserious” and thought, Yes, that’s more like the band I remember, back when they were young and trim and sexy. Or when you visited Accelerate’s standalone web site and heard a couple more songs that suggested that clichéd (for a reason) phrase, “return to form.” Or when you realized that R.E.M. – a stadium act in Europe, and still, though you wouldn’t know it from recent album sales, an arena act in America – were playing a club at South By South West this year: yes, R.E.M., the group that just about damn well started that whole alternative indie college rock phenomenon, had come to realize that they needed the hipsters and the press at America’s pre-eminent music convention, much more than the hipsters and the press needed them. Maybe you only caught on to the new, old R.E.M. vibe this past week when you heard a stream of that SXSW show archived on NPR, or the concert a few days later at London’s Albert Hall, still available on Radio 2. Or when R.E.M. pulled the final punch of their extended pre-release comeback bout by streaming the entire album online, until March 31st, on ilike. Or maybe you haven’t caught wind of any of this and have all but given up on your expectations. Don’t. R.E.M. have returned with their most euphoric album since 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant.

Yet the fact that Accelerate represents a return to the electric guitars and short songs of old does not reflect negatively on the brilliant ballads of the early 1990s; rather, it reflects positively that a group of musicians all around the 50-year age have somehow rediscovered the energy and vitality of their youth. Or to put it another way: on Accelerate, R.E.M. prove no less energetic than the teenagers in Arctic Monkeys.

The video for “Supernatural Superserious.”

I knew Accelerate was “on” from the moment my advance copy hit the CD deck, but I had to leave it there to fully fall in love with it – R.E.M. songs, even their most commercial, take time to sink in, to fully realize their potential. Having listened to little else these last few weeks, Accelerate’s songs have gradually became so embedded in my psyche that they’ve actually started haunting my dreams. I wake up in the middle of the night to hear my subconscious happily singing “Everybody here comes from somewhere” (“Supernatural Superserious”), “Galveston sounds like that song that I love” (‘Houston’), “I am not that easy, I am not that horse to water,” (“Horse To Water”), and “Death is pretty final, I’m collecting vinyl, I’m gonna DJ at the end of the world” (“I’m Gonna DJ”). One by one, every short song has declared itself distinct, and Goddamnit, there’s not a weak one in the set. There’s not even a wacked-out weirdo “New Orleans Instrumental #1.” This is an album of eleven singles. Every fucking song sounds like a hit and yet not one of them sounds like a sell-out.

Here, then, are eleven reasons to fall in love all over again:

1) Peter Buck’s “we’re back” electric guitar riff that opens “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” and with it, the album.
2) The sense of internal purpose that’s audible in the performance of “Houston.” Listen closely and hear the drive behind every pronounced note.
3) The double-tracked vocals and fuzzy guitar on “Mr. Richards.
4) Mike Mills’ shouted backing vocal that’s allowed to overextend “Man-Sized Wreath”s conclusion.
5) The reference to prior songs “Electron Blue” and “Feeling Gravitys Pull” on “Sing For The Submarine.
6) The harmonies on the chorus of “Supernatural Superserious” set off by Buck’s descendant guitar chords: R.E.M.’s trademark sound, still fresh after all these years.
7) “Hollow Man”s deceptively slow start, before “accelerating” into the album’s purest pop song of all.
8) The line “Where is the cartoon escape hatch for me?” on “Accelerate.” Michael Stipe has rediscovered his penchant for the instantly quotable lyric on this album and in the process, has reinvigorated his still richly unique voice.
9) The regal chorus to “Until the Day Is Done,” a song that is surely political in theme but which I’m happy to hear, like the rest of the album, as music first, meaning later. It’s also the nearest Accelerate comes to something we’ve all heard before – the archetypal R.E.M. mid-tempo ballad – yet it’s the only one in the set. And how much better does it sound for that?
10) The sense of youthful abandon that permeates throughout “Horse To Water.” This more than any other reminds of Lifes Rich Pageant. Crank it up.
11) The finale that is “I’m Gonna DJ.” By my own reckoning – pun intended – this and “Horse To Water” are the most raucous of the eleven song set. When did any group in this attention-deficit digital disorder age last decide to put their best numbers at the end of an album? Everything you ever loved about R.E.M. of the 1980s is encapsulated in “I’m Gonna DJ”’s 125 seconds. And yet it sounds as contemporary as if they’d just bounced out of a Brooklyn loft with Pitchfork’s endorsement on their shoulder. And with that perfect final line: “Music will provide the light you cannot resist, you can not resist, you can not resist. Yeah!”

“There aren’t many people that are as good at this as we are,”

says Stipe.

“I don’t know how people sell records nowadays. That’s not my concern. My concern is to make a record that revitalizes the band. I have to think that whoever has liked us over the years will hear it and be excited.”

They will. I, for one, can not resist. Yeah!

R.E.M.’s online trailer for Accelerate

Remarks Remade at iJamming!
More R.E.M. at iJamming!

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Discussion

16 Comment(s)

  1. baby jebus

    26 March, 2008 at 11:07 am

    I don’t where else they could have put an obvious jokey tribute to ‘It’s The End of the World As We Know It’ except on the end of a thirty eight minute record Tony, but knowing Garret he probably insisted on it. And plenty of people put the best tracks at the end- Radiohead, Bettye Lavette, Gnarls Barkley, Black Keys, Arctic Monkeys to name but five within reach as I type.
    ‘Accelerate’ has several virtues, but to me REM are the American equivalent of Queen- mystifyingly adored and whatever their own qualities, a noticeable influence only on bad music. They must have enough catalogue for a jukebox musical by now though- that I would like to see.

    Stay well. I’ve been bumped from the pub again so I’m here. Can’t stop. Must write more…

  2. 26 March, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    Jebus

    “REM are the American equivalent of Queen- mystifyingly adored and whatever their own qualities, a noticeable influence only on bad music.”

    Wow, is that a troll?

    I’ll leave the bait for others to snap at – I suppose it’s nice to know there’s an English music journalist out there who doesn’t worship R.E.M. – and note that our Pub is like Hal (I think it’s Hal) in Space Odyssey: Though created by humans, it appears to have a mind of its own. I’m not sure why it locks people out: does it offer a “keep me logged on” item so you don’t have to keep entering passwords it may choose to conveniently forget?

  3. Geo

    27 March, 2008 at 1:44 am

    Rem and Queen in the same sentence.. both bands I never really ‘got’ (admittedly never put much time into getting them either)… just maybe I am not alone in a matter of musical taste? Life is looking up!

  4. Auctioneer

    27 March, 2008 at 9:57 am

    Tony:

    Glad to hear that “Accelerate” has rarely been off your CD player. I have loved what I have heard on ilike. I probably said this somewhere else but the album to me seems urgent, unforced, thrashy, fun and fairly instant. It contains very familiar elements but doesn’t sound quite like any other REM album. So far my favourite songs are “Mr Richards”, “DJ”, “Horse To Water” and “Accelerate”. The album they needed to make I would agree. I am glad you picked up on the fact that Stipe is writing some good lines again also.

    As for the Queen comparison. Utter wank let’s face it. I can see why some people don’t like REM but the pith of that comparison is that both are naff and their appeal somewhat unfathomable. If all you had heard was “Up”, “Reveal” and “Around The Sun” then maybe but as someone who listened to nothing but “Chronic Town”, “Murmur”, “Reckoning”, “Fables” and “Pagaent” in the year before University no way. You could say that Buck’s arpeggio style was derivative but no other bands had a combination like Mill’s and Berry’s sublime backing melodies, Mill’s melodic bass lines and Michael Stipe’s unique lyrics, vocal style and voice.

    Funnily enough, the one band that REM continue to influence in my humble opinion is Radiohead. Specifically, Thom Yorke’s vocals. Anyone else pick up on the fact that the mix on his lyrics on “In Rainbows” is so murky as to make the lyrics inscrutable on the first, second or even third listen on many songs. I know it is atavistic but my one quibble with current day REM is that Michael Stipe’s voice is too clear. I do long for a wee bit of mystery.

  5. jaffo

    27 March, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Seven Seas of Rhye > anything by REM

  6. baby jebus

    27 March, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    I didn’t say REM sound like Queen, or that either are naff. I said they both leave me mystified as to why people adore them so. I don’t even dislike either of them, I just can’t hear what the fuss is about. The point about influence is that both are pretty inimitable, which might well be why they leave me cold. (And I was at university when ‘Reckoning’ was released and even then I thought, in the immortal words Sonny Liston used to describe the Beatles, ‘Are these the motherfuckers all them people are screaming about?’ ;-) )

    Now Husker Du- there was a band…

  7. Auctioneer

    27 March, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    Baby Jesus: I see what you are getting at. Yep Husker Du were a great band. Bob Mould plays Seattle on Saturday night and I am tempted to go see him. And “Seven Seas of Rhye” might be the greatest track of all time outside of “Tracks of My Tears”. Yep, I feel for the bait. Take a bow.

  8. jaffo

    28 March, 2008 at 5:29 am

    The more I think about it, the more I realise that there are a lot of similarities between REM and Queen: Both fronted by pretentious tossers, both have ordinary musicians with extraordinarily bad dress sense, both have an ‘anthem’ (Bohemian Rhapsody and Man In The Moon) that are utter tripe, both have a new album out (or about to come out in Queen’s case), both have done a couple of decent songs (Seven Seas, erm…can’t think of an REM one but I know I liked something by them once).

    Queen are a bit like the Jam as well aren’t they? Both lost their frontman but still struggle on anyway, both fronted by pretentious tossers, bad dress sense etc etc.

    Uncanny really.

  9. 28 March, 2008 at 8:10 am

    Jaf

    You having problems at home or something? Come on, grow up, you sound like a 12-year old trying to get attention from the other kids. I’ve got these Comments sections open for what I hope is intelligent conversation. I’ll close them up again if this is all I can expect.

    (And I’d say the same if you were attacking some group I have no for.)

  10. jaffo

    28 March, 2008 at 8:59 am

    Fletch, sorry if I offended you, consider my wrist slapped.

    Things are fine at home, thanks for asking

  11. Brighton Mike

    28 March, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Blimey! Things you thought you’d never see part 1: The great Queen/REM/Jam comparison debate….

    All I know is that, as a humble music-buying fan I’ll be knocking on the door at HMV to get hold of a copy of Accelerate on Monday morning. I’ve not heard anything from it yet bar the single, though I’d buy it on the strength of that alone. However this review has made me all the more excited about it – I shall prepare myself with some 80’s REM albums with one word titles on the iPod on the train home tonight I think.

    For me, I was familiar, but nothing more, with REM’s early stuff as it was happening, – my disinterest stemming mainly from catching them play a less than inspiring set on an appalling wet and muddy day at Milton Keynes bowl when they were on the same bill as (I think) U2, The Ramones, Billy Bragg, amongst others, some time in the mid 80s. I had no great real love for the band then – that all changed with Out of Time and AFTP, and after those albums hooked me I went back and revisited the earlier stuff and realised what I’d missed at the time. Agreed also that post Monster it all went a bit wrong…… So I can’t wait to get my hands on this album.

    I

  12. 28 March, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    Couldn’t agree more, Tony. I am loving this record after having all but given up on the band after ATS. I didn’t think they still had it in them, but I’m thrilled that they did.

  13. The Lovegod

    29 March, 2008 at 2:23 am

    Jaffo wrote:

    “The more I think about it, the more I realise that there are a lot of similarities between REM and Queen: Both fronted by pretentious tossers”

    Jaffo

    I regularly read your posts and more often than not find what you write interesting. I have found myself listening to a lot of new music as a result of your posts and I am genuinely grateful for that, but….

    REM “fronted by a pretentious tosser?”

    I hope your tongue is stuck firmly in your cheek. Otherwise I look forward to reading your future insightful missives in The Sun.

  14. 29 March, 2008 at 10:51 am

    As a tangential continuation of these comments, I just got around to watching the “Stadium Rock” episode of 7 Ages of Rock, and almost fell in love with Queen all over again. (They were, incidentally, the very first “proper” group I ever saw live – and not in a stadium but the back row of Hammersmith Odeon.) Freddie Mercury may or may not have been a pretentious tosser – he had his faults – but we’ve never seen a performer quite like him, before or since. Watching the clips from LiveAid brought back some serious memories – in all my life, I’ve never seen a performer take the audience into the palm of his hand like that.

    Tony

  15. The Lovegod

    31 March, 2008 at 3:08 am

    Hey Tony is it just me or does “tangential continuation” sound like the title of a concept album!

    You old prog rocker you!

  16. 3 April, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Nice review, Tony. It’s great to fall in love (again). I found the band a few months after “Murmur” came out. Their move to Warners and “Green” was a huge gut punch. Like so many fans, I didn’t think I’d ever hear them sound like this again. Good god, do they sound good.

    And as I play the thing all the time too, the slower songs in the middle of the album are revealing themselves. The short second verse of Houston is powerfully understated. I would have to say, though, than Sing For The Submarine, is sort of a dud.

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