Monday, June 2, 2008

Headphones: R.E.M.'s Accelerate

Do you know anyone who would call R.E.M. their favorite band? Me neither. If you do, they are probably about 40 years old, and they discovered Fables Of The Reconstruction or Life’s Rich Pageant in their freshman year of college. But why is that? We’ve all met thousands of die hard music fans. I know at least a handful of people that swear by everything Mike Patton does (even those bedroom experiments), and I know at least two Rocket From The Crypt fans that genuflect at Speedo’s feet. I think one of the reasons R.E.M. hasn’t inspired crazed and obsessive fandom in people my age and younger is because there’s always at least one issue that prevents their albums from being the kind of disc you pull off the shelf for fun; their albums are frequently over-serious mixed bags, so it curbs someone wanting to be really into them. You listen to R.E.M. because you want to listen to them specifically, not just cuz you want some music on.

That’s why Accelerate, their fourteenth album, is such a nice surprise – its upside is that it’s listenable to a ridiculously pleasant degree. That doesn’t mean it’s not another mixed bag – it is, though it’s much less so than their last decade of work, as well as easing up on the big meanings. Where this new album succeeds is with what I think is the problem within the arc of their career: it’s all about audience expectations, right or wrong. R.E.M. has always been a melancholy band, but when they broke out, they did so largely on a string of singles pulled from their sunnier side; “It’s The End Of The World”, “Stand”, “Pop Song 89”, “Shiny Happy People”, etc, all gave balance to the gloom of “The One I Love”, “Orange Crush”, and “Losing My Religion”. And then they hit the world with the mixed messages of album-length stylistic explorations Automatic For The People and Monster. The world didn’t know what to think, and so they didn’t know what they wanted from R.E.M., and the great but confusing New Adventures In Hi-Fi definitely provided zero answers. It’s much like when U2’s audience rolled with the change of Achtung Baby, and the band rewarded the good faith with the perplexing single “Numb” and Zooropa; while the tour still did well, the album tanked, and people tuned out on Pop which, while spotty, had a handful of classic U2 songs buried underneath the gloss of “Discotheque”. And so, I propose that Accerlerate could be to R.E.M. what All That You Can’t Leave Behind was to U2: a fresh start in the eyes of the public. With the first single “Supernatural Superserious” sounding like everyone’s favorite R.E.M. song rolled into one, as well as a beefed up cover of “There She Goes” by The La’s, they might actually get their second chance.

The world wants the fun R.E.M., and the band responds here with fun-sounding songs. That doesn’t mean their lyrics are light-hearted, it just means they play with infectious energy. At this point in their careers, there is nothing stopping R.E.M. from doing whatever they want, and usually when musicians get to that point they put out albums heavily informed by what they liked when they formed a band in the first place (see Eric Clapton’s From The Cradle, ironically released the same day as Monster). It is fathomable that Peter Buck, Mike Mills & Michael Stipe sat down and decided that if they were going to continue to do this, then it had to be fun for them too. That is one of the two things that drive this album. The fun they’re having stirring up a racket, probably echoing their favorite songs from the 70’s and early 80’s (like the very post-punky title track), promotes the energetic performances, especially from Buck, who even on the album’s two weakest tracks, “Mr. Richards” and “Sing For The Submarine”, keeps you swirling around with fascinating guitar mastery.

The album rarely slows down, clocking in at a refreshingly brisk 35 minutes (five of the eleven songs finish up before the 3-minute mark; only two exceed 4 minutes). On “Living Well Is The Best Revenge”, “Horse To Water” and the already classic “I’m Gonna DJ”, they’re striving to reclaim the breathless rush of songs like “End Of The World” and “Star 69”, but wisely stop the songs when they’ve said what they have to say. The other thing driving the album is the smart decision to record with the touring lineup, featuring longtime fifth member Scott McCaughey and former Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin. R.E.M. has always had an unblemished live reputation, and Rieflin makes them ten times stronger, bashing away like a kid twenty-five years his junior, finally the perfect replacement for human metronome Bill Berry. Even slower, less aggressive songs like “Houston” and “Until The Day Is Done” retain a forcefulness that the band hasn’t possessed in years. In the end, this may not be the perfect R.E.M. album, but is there such a thing? What Accelerate can be though, sounding not unlike a cross between Big Star's Radio City and Wire's Pink Flag, is the R.E.M. album you actually want to take off the shelf and play all the way through, and for a band eyeing thirty years of existence, that’s about as much as we can hope for.

"Supernatural Superserious" [video]

"Living Well Is The Best Revenge" [acoustic, in a car]

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