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.
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.
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,”
“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