Revitalized R.E.M. Accelerate

AccelerateIn some ways, I envy future generations for their ability to separate an artist’s discography from its contemporary context. Unless they’re a scholar of pop culture, music fans of the future can listen to a band’s work unhindered by its critical narrative. In the present day, we can’t escape it. Every album is a “a return to form” or “a disappointing follow-up” or “a breakthrough disc” – no album is permitted to just be a collection of songs.

I’m not absolving myself of responsibility in this phenomenon – hell, almost anyone who writes about music is bound to fall victim to it – but there are times where it just becomes frustrating. Reviewing the reviews of Accelerate, every take on the record is less about the music and where it fits into the band’s narrative. Pretty much everyone agrees that Around the Sun sucked all sorts of lots, but your take on Accelerate seems to depend on how you view R.E.M.’s major label trajectory as a whole. Those reviewers who’ve given up on R.E.M. hear a noble-but-mostly-uninspired stab at past glories. Those who want to believe again hear a raw, driving energy and a new passion from the three-piece. When a single song – “Hollow Man” – gets compared to both Counting Crows and Guided By Voices in different reviews, you know that the song itself is not what’s actually up for debate.

I make no pretense of being able to separate my thoughts on Accelerate from my own version of R.E.M.’s story, which probably gives their major-label output more credit than the negativists do. All I can do is try as best as I can, with words, to describe how absolutely great this album sounds to my ears.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Accelerate is a *great* album. It’s hardly in the same league as the band’s best records, the essential and timeless R.E.M. works like Automatic for the People or Murmur. But if it doesn’t rank in the top half of the band’s discography, it’s only because their first decade as a band was so equally productive and spectacular that it takes up too many spots. It’s also quite possible that my reaction to Accelerate, and the reaction of so many others, is entirely based on its relative quality compared to Around the Sun. After all, yesterday I referred to that album as “a record that had absolutely no reason to exist.”

From the opening chords of “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” there’s absolutely no way such a charge could be leveled against Accelerate. It’s the sound of a band with something to prove, desperate to show the world that they can still throw a punch. The production – handled by Jacknife Lee this time around – keeps a rawness to Peter Buck’s guitar while still keeping things professional, but it’s really the band’s songwriting that deserves most of the credit here.

First off, it’s the exact opposite of the overthought indulgence of their last few records (oh crap, I just did it again). There’s few keyboards to be found on the disc; this is drums, bass, guitar and vocals, lean and efficient. Secondly, somebody finally realized that Mike Mills is one of the greatest backup vocalists ever and let the man lend his pipes to the majority of the album’s tracks (pay particular attention to his stunning harmonies on the last lines of “Supernatural Serious”). And with a couple of exceptions, Michael Stipe puts aside his “self help” lyricism that has dragged down the last few records and delivers an eclectic set of vocal performances that range from the raging to the reflective to the downright silly.

The album drags a bit in its middle – “Until the Day is Done” would have fit well on the band’s early Warner Bros. records, but paired with “Accelerate” it forms the album’s only rut – but for most of its brief (31 minutes) running time, Accelerate is nothing but little pleasure after little pleasure: the folk dirge of “Houston,” the feedback-driven hook of “Mr. Richards,” the blistering punk of “Horse to Water,” and the joyous release of “I’m Gonna DJ,” which instantly becomes the most charmingly tossed-off album ender since the band tacked their cover of “Superman” onto Lifes Rich Pageant.

And really, if you want a reference point for Accelerate within the R.E.M.’s catalogue, it’s Pageant, the band’s fourth full-length. Like Accelerate, it too was the band’s attempt to find its legs again after a disappointing record (although no one would put Fables of the Reconstruction on the same level as Around the Sun). It was also the band’s first time working with a new producer determined to add some punch to the band’s sound. More importantly, though, it sounded like a record that was just the right amount of undercooked and wonderfully lacking in overcalculation. It was a record not laboured over, but no less loved.

If pressed, I might declare Pageant to be my favourite R.E.M. record. I didn’t expect a similar masterpiece out of Accelerate. But it’s closer to one than it’s not, and the fact that Michael, Mike and Peter seemed determined to try again makes all the difference in the world to me.

Welcome back, boys.

Watch: R.E.M. – “Supernatural Superserious”

Noontime Update: Just to add to my enthusiasm for R.E.M.’s new record, I just got myself tickets to their Toronto show with Modest Mouse and The National – a lineup target marketed to the elusive McNutt demographic. Can’t wait.

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