If you’ve read past blogs from me here or on Myspace, you’ve heard me rant about my favorite rock band on earth, R.E.M. Flat out, their last album, AROUND THE SUN, sucked. And the two before that weren’t great shakes either, not in comparison to their heyday in the 1980s and early 90s. Their last completely successful album was probably NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI, which incidentally was drummer Bill Berry’s last foray with the band. And believe me, the subsequent albums showed his absence.
There’s a common joke that you know that a band is breaking up when the drummer announces that he’s written a song. But I think drummers turned artists like Dave Grohl, and the game ROCK BAND, have given the drummer newfound respect in rock and roll. R.E.M.’s tour drummer, Bill Rieflin, added some necessary punch to many of the UP, REVEAL, and AROUND THE SUN songs played live. Scott McCaughey also added an extra layer of sound to the live shows, and no matter how in the stratosphere the studio albums sound, the live versions are solid rock performances.
Now, with ACCELERATE, R.E.M. finally moves on from Bill Berry’s loss. If it were up to me, R.E.M. would just go ahead and announce Rieflin and McCaughey as full-fledged members of the band and leave Berry to his farming. ACCELERATE is a breath of fresh air to the increasingly stale R.E.M. catalog, and the album sounds like something they wrote in their heyday instead of the flights of aural fancy that they have been taking in recent years. It’s short (only 34 and change minutes long), focused, and angry.
Much of my complaints about what was missing in recent R.E.M. albums were the backing vocals and melodies of bassist Mike Mills. I’m convinced Mills is one of the most unsung musicians in rock. Classically trained, and decidedly less flashy than, say, the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea, he was always a grounding force in their songs, and his harmonies were beautiful and very complementary to Michael Stipe’s vocals. But since HI-FI those have been largely missing. They come back with full force in ACCELERATE, and the result sounds reminiscent of older albums but also definitively modern. Peter Buck, as well, always sounded restrained in recent years, but not any longer.His brand of melodic rock punches a hole right through the folksy nature of AROUND THE SUN. ACCELERATE is decidedly a rock album, with maybe one song that could be considered something of a ballad.
I’ve always suspected that R.E.M. times their album releases with election cycles. Yeah, call me conspiratorial, but ever since AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE I’ve noticed how albums get surreptitiously released right before an election. “Ignoreland” was certainly a shout-out against Republican interests in 1992. AROUND THE SUN was released in October of 2004, but although it was very much a political album, the lack of sales didn’t spark much interest in their message. Well, with ACCELERATE, Michael Stipe comes screaming right out of the gate, demanding your attention. In “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” Stipe snaps at useless pundits who predict everything and contribute nothing: “Don’t turn your talking points on me/History will set me free/The future’s ours and you don’t even rate a footnote” and it’s sung at a breakneck rhythm while Buck and Mills go to town. Much of ACCELERATE is informed with Stipe’s anger at the establishment. “Man-Sized Wreath” is Stipe furious with empty gestures while people continue to die in pointless wars: “Well I’m not deceived by pomp and odious conceit/Or a tearful hymn to tug the heart/And a man-sized wreath – ow!” Songs like “Houston,” about Hurricane Katrina, or “Mr. Richards,” a bit of schadenfreude about a disgraced politician, have Stipe singing with barely contained fury. Even the single, “Supernatural Superserious” has a decidedly MONSTER-esque guitar riff as Stipe sings about a repressed gay youth. No ambiguity here – this is a very pissed off album and it’s no accident that it comes out now, with time for the general election in November for its issues to play in voter’s minds. It’s not subtle, for sure, much like Green Day’s AMERICAN IDIOT.
“Sing For The Submarine”, on any other R.E.M. album, would be the closer. It sounds like the encapsulation of all of R.E.M.’s themes, and even references other songs in their catalog. It feels like the last song R.E.M. ever wrote. Instead, it’s third from last, with two thunderous rock songs as the album closer, “Horse To Water”, and “I’m Gonna DJ,” which was also the closer on the R.E.M. LIVE album. The album closes with a song about death, as Stipe rants that he won’t be leaving this place until “I’m good and ready.”
The final lines of the album, “Music could provide the light that you cannot resist/You cannot resist, you cannot resist, yeah!” feel like a new beginning for this band, who have re-invented themselves so many times that it’s not sure who the “real” R.E.M. is. Some fans will say this album hearkens back to their original sound, some people will claim it’s more modern, and in the end it won’t matter. This band’s refusal to be pinned down is why they have remained so compelling to me over the years, and as my doubts get washed away amidst guitar riffs, Stipe-rants, and glorious backing melodies, I realize that I don’t ever want to pin this band down. I want them to continue to surprise me, to intrigue me, and ACCELERATE fills that need considerably. It’s one of this band’s best albums, and one of the best of this year.