Someone really should tell R.E.M. that there aren’t meant to be any second acts in American lives. Thought to be a spent force after the overlong and overproduced Around The Sun, the Athens, Georgia threesome have returned with the streamlined anger of their 14th studio album, Accelerate. If Around the Sun was the tragic sound of Buck, Mills and Stipe gradually falling into musical senescence, Accelerate finds them blazing away like old(er) men behaving very badly indeed.
Make no mistake about it, on Accelerate R.E.M. sound like men less than half their age, ripping through 11 songs in a mere 35 minutes that contains great chunks of just about everything that made them the biggest band in world back in the 1990s. Gone are the tentative stabs at experimentation and half-hearted attempts at embracing new technology that marred the albums the band made in the wake of the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997. While R.E.M. defiantly remain a trio in 2008, the addition of ex-Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin seems to have reminded them of how good it feels to, well, rawk.
And rock is something that Accelerate does in spades. Living Well’s The Best Revenge starts the album on a propulsive high, fuelled by Peter Buck’s best fuzz-jangle riff since Begin the Begin jump-started 1986′s Lifes Rich Pageant. The song positively reeks of golden-era R.E.M.: fantastic counterpoint backing vocals from Mike Mills on the chorus and an angry, ranting vocal from Stipe, practically spitting out lines like “All your sad and lost apostles hum my name and flare their nostrils/ Choking on the bones you toss to them”.
There’s barely enough time to draw breath before Man Sized Wreath starts up the attack afresh. Prominent Mike Mills bass line; great, almost atonal fuzz running through the chorus; powerful drumming from Rieflin; Stipe again sounding he’s decided that his days of mumbling are over, “Turning on the TV and what do I see?/A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me/Wow!”.It’s a strong opening, and things keep getting better.
As impassioned as they are, the album’s first two tracks have an element of playfulness to them, the bile of Stipe’s lyrics tempered by his onomatopoeic asides inserted at the end of particularly weighty couplets like “It’s only when your poison spins into the life you’d hoped to live/That suddenly you wake up in a shaking panic/Wow!”. These seeming self-conscious ad-libs further strengthen Accelerate’s aura of garage-band freshness, a vibe that also pervades the album’s first single, Supernatural Superserious.
Then again, R.E.M. have rarely been po-faced when it’s come to delivering their political and environmental calls-to-arms; sure, 1987′s Document contained protest songs like Welcome To The Occupation, but it also had It’s The End Of The World As We Know It, whose downright cheery vibe sat somewhat at odds with its portentous title. But while previous albums saw Stipe and co. leading from the front in their attempts to get America et al. to wake up to governmental corruption, wars of aggression and environmental catastrophes, Accelerate finds the band looking back to their younger, strident selves and finding that for all their hollering, nothing much has really changed.
Where such introspection may have sunk previous R.E.M. albums, Accelerate manages to take the disappointment of Presidents unimpeached and turn it into righteous rage. Stipe may sing “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?” on Hollow Man, but the song’s plaintive piano-led opening swiftly turns into an anthemic rocker on its chorus.
If you want to find the album’s heart and soul, its statement of purpose, its plea to its listeners, you won’t find it on the mid-tempo ballads Houston or Until The Day is Done, as wonderful as those songs are (thankfully, Peter Buck’s ability to jangle in a minor key has been reclaimed as surely as his collections of overdrive pedals). No, fittingly it’s on its title track that Accelerate delivers its most direct straight-to-camera moment.
In pre-album interviews Michael Stipe mentioned that Accelerate was about “the future I imagined as a teenager, now’, and it’s obvious that the band are not happy at the state of 2008′s nation. Over a pummelling drum workout Stipe opens with the disturbing image ‘Sinking fast, the weight chained to my feet/No time to argue with belief/I’m not alone, a thousand others dropping/Faster than me”; on the chorus he cries out for escape “Where is the ripcord, the trapdoor, the key?/Where is the cartoon escape-hatch for me?” as the song stops on a heartbeat and begins again, with a soaring keyboard line that pushes the music on like the thruster of an ICBM. If all we can do with our shining, gleaming 21st century is to find new ways to kill and exploit, Stipe seems to be saying, well, stop the bus, I want to get off.
In such an unforgiving world, where do we find our solace? What do we keep fighting for if, as Stipe sings on Until The Day Is Done, “The battle’s been lost, the war is not won”. In its final track, Accelerate offers an answer, but cloaks it in such goofy clothes that its meaning is obscured. Tucked into the self-consciously “crazy!” final track I’m Gonna DJ is Stipe’s last, hopeful gesture that “Music will provide the light you cannot resist”. So you hit play on the CD again, and bask in R.E.M.’s finest 35 minutes of the naughties, thankful that an old friend you thought you’d lost has triumphantly returned.