Review Summary: Eleven alternative pop songs with no excess fat around the edges.
The self-generated press surrounding the release of R.E.M.’s fourteenth album is nothing, in itself, out of the ordinary. Sure, it’s hardly unusual for bands to hark back to the “early days” before they’ve even finished their second album, while by now the members of Metallica must be utterly sick of dropping cryptic and not-so-cryptic hints linking each forthcoming record to …And Justice For All
. Yet in the case of Accelerate
it’s a little different. For one thing, the vast majority of journalists implicit in the album’s publicity are in agreement that Accelerate
is something a little bit different, an altogether ballsier return to their punk roots, or perhaps even more basic a transformation than that. As guitarist Peter Buck noted in a State Magazine
interview in January, “this is probably the record we should have made in 1981 when we were young, but […] it was the post punk era and we were doing something else.”
Hyperbole aside, Accelerate
is a tidal wave away from the disjointed, insular rock that has plagued their most recent studio attempts- Up
and Around The Sun
. Stipe has replaced his disinterested yowl with a fierce punk snarl, most notably on counter-reactionary diatribe ‘Living Well Is The Best Revenge’ that opens the set, and with it has rediscovered the world around him. His pointed social commentary is particularly revealing in light of the introspection that has defined the last ten years of R.E.M.’s recorded output. Buck and bassist Mike Mills, for their part, appear to be revelling in their new-found freedom to rock, Buck ricocheting tight, melodic lines off studio wingman Scott McCaughey’s razor-sharp chords above Mills’ rumbling bass lines. The heavy, electric organ rumble of album highlight ‘Houston’ evokes a psychedelic, early heavy metal vibe, as well as indulging Buck’s mandolin fetish, while ‘Man-Sized Wreath’ and lead single ‘Supernatural Superserious’ bustle with Beatlesque chords and melodies, the latter particularly reminiscent of the britrock boom that the band partly inspired but were never moved to partake in.
’s songs are generally well-constructed, almost to the point of being formulaic, eleven alternative pop songs with no excess fat around the edges. Producer Jacknife Lee, better known for his Grammy-winning hand in U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
and for guiding Snow Patrol’s ascent to international stardom, appears to have drilled the band well without constraining the looseness of the performances. Stipe’s lyrics are typically inconsistent. Opener ‘Living Well Is The Best Revenge’ has him in world-beating form, directing clever, pointed attacks upon the forces of conservatism and backwardness the world over, jibing, “all your sad and lost apostles hum my name and flare their nostrils / choking on the bones you toss to them,”
before he proudly proclaims: “don't turn your talking points on me / history will set me free / the future's ours.”
However tracks like ‘Until The Day Is Done’ and ‘Mr. Richards,’ a thinly-veiled ode to shamed comedian Michael Richards a.k.a. Kramer from Seinfed, show the opposite side of Stipe. Too vague to be particularly meaningful and not interesting enough in itself, ‘Until The Day Is Done’ boasts sweet twelve-string acoustic guitar melodies, but its doomsday imagery is lamentably ineffective. Stipe teases with vaguely incendiary sentiments like “so hold tight your babies and your guns / forgive us our trespasses, Father and Son”
yet never commits to anything more tangible, though one gets the feeling the Republicans are probably to blame. ‘Mr. Richards’ at least attempts to grapple with the complexity of its subject’s racist outburst, and the furore that surrounded it, rather than merely pointing figures but it remains little more than a series of half-finished thoughts. There’s more than a hint of the Noel Gallaghers to the line, “Mr. Richards, your conviction had us cheering in the kitchen,”
not least because Gallagher himself used a similar rhyme, and it’s symptomatic of the wider lack of clarity that dogs the song.
Yet for all of the uncharacteristic vitality of the performances, this is
R.E.M. and it’s perhaps inevitable that they’d abandon the schtick at some point and disappear above themselves. ‘Sing For The Submarine’ breaks completely with the simplicity of the album and unravels into forced profundity and overblown grandiosity. Sputnikmusic’s own Nick Butler recently queried, “remember the good old days, when indie used to be all about intimacy?”
While R.E.M. has never been the most intimate of operations, they’ve at least been gifted with enough self-awareness to realise their limitations- hell, Accelerate
is based entirely upon that premise. That ‘Sing For The Submarine’ sounds so laboured, even next to Accelerate
’s more forgettable numbers, leaves a slightly rotten taste for the remainder of another otherwise triumphant disc.