Wednesday, April 2, 2008


And about frickin' time. We just knew they had it in them. After too many years away from the ramparts, after a string of records that sadly underwhelmed, R.E.M. is back in the mix with "Accelerate," the band's 14th studio album and the one we've been waiting for: a musical document that fights the powers that be with a raucous conviction, a renewed confidence in the power of rafter-rattling rock as a musical and social force.

Talk about the passion? It's back, in what's already being called the album of the year.

“Accelerate is our turbocharged response to the times we live in,” Stipe told the iLike social music discovery service.

Longtime fans have wondered where that response has been for so long. There’s some acclimation for the idea that the group lost focus and cohesion after the health-related departure of drummer Bill Berry in October 1997. The doubt and uncertainty that surely accompanied Berry's exit seeped into the records to follow. The three post-Berry studio releases — “Up,” “Reveal” and “Around the Sun” — had little of the spark of their predecessors.

"Up," the first without Berry in tow, used either guest drummers or drum machines to replace him, but a lingering melancholy about his leaving coupled with a failure to jell creatively left many listeners uninspired. “Reveal,” while a beautiful, nakedly emotional record that explored rock’s dream aspect and its poetic possibilities, still lacked much of the raw drive common to R.E.M.’s earlier, more memorable work. A listless exercise in navel-gazing, “Around the Sun” just lays there.

"The guys in R.E.M. didn't fall off the stardom train, they jumped," wrote Cary Darling of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Michael Stipe and the boys seemed increasingly uncomfortable with their '80s/90s popularity and turned their backs on it, releasing albums that satisfied them perhaps but couldn't find an audience. They appeared to be drifting into benign irrelevance."

Sales for those three releases reflected a growing public indifference. The band’s release of no fewer than six greatest-hits and retro compilations (not counting last year’s live album), and its relative absence as a musical entity during the Bush years, validated for listeners what was once an unthinkable idea: R.E.M. didn’t matter anymore.

◊ ◊ ◊

That was then, now is better. With “Accelerate,” the pride of Athens, Ga., returns to its rightful place as a top-rank band.

The group storms out of the gate with "Living Well Is the Best Revenge," an acid cri de coeur whose angry lyric explosiveness recalls "Ignoreland" on "Automatic for the People." The fiery "Man-Sized Wreath" decries the "pageantry of empty gestures" of the present day. "Houston" takes dead aim at U.S. governmental inertia after Hurricane Katrina and the bureaucracy that forced residents of New Orleans to relocate to Texas.

Stipe turns the mirror on himself, his own inadequacies and insecurities. On the song "Hollow Man," Stipe owns up to his own place in the pop-culture constellation, as candid as painfully confessional as anything from the band's past:

I'm overwhelmed, I'm on repeat
I'm emptied out, I'm incomplete
you trusted me, I want to show you
I don't want to be the hollow man

Believe in me, believe in nothing
corner me and make me something
I've become the hollow man,
have I become the hollow man I see?

Elsewhere he's grappling with that search common to all of us: looking for an avenue to personal change. From the title track:

Where is the ripcord, the trapdoor, the key?
Where is the cartoon escape-hatch for me?
no time to question the choices I make
I've got to fall in another direction.

What made it possible to "Accelerate"? The record had a rather public birthing; most of the songs were forged in the furnace of live performance, used as the set list for a series of test-drive concerts in 2007 at the Olympia Theater in Dublin — attended, no doubt, by a tough crowd. The evidence is in the tracks: R.E.M. has shaken off the doldrums with a return to the guitar-driven energy of its earliest and best incarnation (even while the band's acoustic, folky soul remains a constant) and an apparent willingness to go with the first or second draft, rather than fussing about trying to craft a masterpiece.

“I tried to get them to stop the editor inside,” producer Jacknife Lee told Joan Anderman of the Boston Globe on March 30. "Over-consideration generally leads to a less exciting sound because you start eliminating spontaneity and start concentrating on your last idea instead of the germ of the idea. When things are moving quickly, you have to rely on your instincts," said Lee, who's worked with Snow Patrol and Bloc Party, among other top-tier acts.

The new record is a testament to the power of brevity, of getting a lot in a little message. You can sprint through the album’s 11 songs (not counting the two in the CD/DVD package) in about 37 minutes. Most of these tracks clock in in under four minutes, some a hair over three minutes long — it’s a return to a less-is-more thinking that characterized much of the band’s “Document” and “Green”-era work.

Accelerate” is also, apparently, a concession to the furies of maturity. Stipe told Anderman: "I think this came from my reaching 48 years of age and realizing, 'Wow. I'm staring down the grill of something the likes of which I have not imagined.' And that's my mortality …”

It’s all there on the closing track, “I’m Gonna DJ”:

death is pretty final
i'm collecting vinyl
i'm gonna dj at the end of the world

cause if heaven does exist
with a kicking playlist
i don't wanna miss it at the end of the world

hey steady steady, hey steady steady
i don't wanna go until i'm good and ready

it's on my mind
it's in my mind
it's what i found,
and it's what i find

Whatever the trigger was, it’s resulted in a record that arrives in a country and a time ready for change, big change, and arrives as a record that itself embraces the idea of transition. Uncut's John Mulvey got it about right: " 'Accelerate' is a simple, pragmatic record built on an uncomfortable truth: sometimes, even the best bands have to retrace their steps, if only to remind themselves what they're really good at."

"Accelerate" anticipates change — from vast sweeping social change to the more incremental shifts in our own lives — and acknowledges the relentless pressures of mortality, even as it confronts that mortality with an engaging, refreshing defiance.

To R.E.M., life’s rich pageant is still a going concern. It’s that force driving the flower through the green fuse again. The days are getting longer, the grass won’t stop growing, the ice of too much winter is beginning to thaw, and redheads are walking with the promise of the season in their eyes …

It’s springtime, and R.E.M. is rockin’ again. Give thanks.
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Image credits: Stipe: Charlie Brewer, Sydney, Australia, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license. R.E.M.: Rahav Segev for the Boston Globe. Used without permission, but come on, Rahav — in the spirit of the band, don’t sue. Be a pal.

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