The new R.E.M. album exceeds expectations.
So: "Accelerate". It'd be easy for me to create a narrative in which this is the first good R.E.M. album since Bill Berry left, but the truth is that I stopped being a total R.E.M. a little while before that--around the time of "Monster". That was a decent album, I suppose--had a few songs on it that positively ruled, like "Star 69" and "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" and those songs not only ruled but rocked. However, the return to rockin' promised in pre-album publicity for "Monster" wasn't really the whole story; for every "Star 69" there were two "Crush With Eyeliner"'s, and that ratio didn't work for me. It was the first R.E.M. album that I ever felt was a disappointment. A pretty good ratio for a career that had been going for something like 12 or 13 years at that point, but still, it was enough to put me slightly off of R.E.M., and "E-Bow The Letter" didn't sound interesting enough to lead me to pick up "New Adventures In Hi-Fi", either. From what I've heard, that album is more like "Automatic For The People" than anything else in R.E.M.'s catalogue, and while I don't have any particular beef with "Automatic", the prospect of another one is not that exciting to me. So OK, then what? Well, that's when Bill Berry left the band, and as almost anyone can tell you, the first post-Berry album, "Up", attained new levels of disappointment for R.E.M. "Daysleeper" wasn't bad, and I liked "The Great Beyond" (which was released between "Up" and "Reveal" and not included on either album) enough to buy the single. But these songs didn't stand the test of time for me, and when most R.E.M. fans were so disappointed by "Reveal" and "Around The Sun" that they made "Up"'s reception seem warm, I figured any time spent listening to those two albums was time wasted. By now, it's been so long since I had any real interest in a new R.E.M. album that I've pretty much come to think of them as a band that doesn't exist anymore.
This might have stayed that way even through the recent period of relative excitement over "Accelerate" if it weren't for the fact that, one night, I turned off whatever movie I was watching just in time to see R.E.M. performing "Hollow Man". I can't figure out what talk show they were on (maybe Conan?), and google is no help, but it's no matter--the song blew me away, that's the important thing. It sounded like the old R.E.M., the band I loved so much back in my middle school and high school days (1986-1993, to be specific). I didn't remember to do so right away, but I downloaded "Accelerate" soon after. It still took me a while for it to really grab onto me--I probably had it for a month before I really seriously got into it, but at this point, it's been my favorite album for the past few weeks. I've probably played it more now than I have any new R.E.M. album since "Out Of Time". And considering the fact that that album contained "Shiny Happy People" and "Radio Song", two songs that wore out their welcome with me within a year of "Out Of Time"'s release, I'm probably more excited about "Accelerate" than I have been about any R.E.M. album since "Green". And yes, that is high praise, considering that "Green" came out fully 20 years ago.
There are so many highlights here that it's almost easier to point to the songs I'm not as enamored with; "Houston" is possibly the only song here that sounds more to me like the "Automatic"/"New Adventures" strain of R.E.M.'s songwriting style, and therefore I'm not too excited about it. "Sing For The Submarine" doesn't have anything in particular wrong with it, but doesn't excite me that much, and the same is true of "Supernatural Superserious", though that song at least is pretty rocking--I think my only objection to it is that it could have been slightly more uptempo than it is.
As for the tracks I do like, well, one of them is the leadoff track: "Living Well Is The Best Revenge". This song starts off the record with a bang, letting you know that this isn't just another lackluster, soft-rock later-period R.E.M. album. I read an interview recently where Michael Stipe admitted that, after Bill Berry's departure, the band had spent several years behaving like, in his words, "a three-legged dog", and only recently had realized that they could go ahead and use touring drummer (and Ministry alumnus) Bill Rieflin as a studio drummer and write a full-on rock record again. "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" is a full-on rock song, that's for sure, and kicks with the energy of R.E.M.'s early Warner period; it resembles the less jangly, more electrified sound of songs like "Turn You Inside Out" or "What's The Frequency Kenneth?", and is as fast and energetic as anything they've ever done. Mike Mills's counterpoint backing vocals on the chorus are also a welcome sound, resembling the sort of vocal work he often contributed to the early R.E.M. albums but has contributed all too infrequently in recent years. "Man-Sized Wreath" follows "Living Well", and it's a slower, more driving rocker with an outstanding melodic chorus, again featuring Mike Mills backing vocals. The aforementioned "Hollow Man" lands somewhere between "Living Well" and "Man-Sized Wreath", following a quiet piano/vocal intro with the sort of jangly, pastoral-sounding choruses that dominated albums like "Fables Of The Reconstruction" and "Life's Rich Pageant". It's no surprise that this is the song that drew me back in; as an R.E.M. fan who is most excited by their earlier work, this song is tailor-made for me and those who like the same elements of R.E.M.'s music that most excite me.
One of the great things about "Accelerate" is the fact that R.E.M. have written some of their most explicitly political material ever for this album. "Mr. Richards", a midtempo song located two-thirds of the way through the album, points its finger at someone who sounds very familiar to anyone paying attention to the woeful state of American politics in 2008. He isn't named in the song's lyrics, not by his real name, at least, but hints are given in the fact that Stipe is likely to dedicate live performances of the song to Dick Cheney. The lyrics contain the wishful but viscerally thrilling lines: "Mr. Richards, your conviction had us cheering in the kitchen--now the jury's eating pigeon pie." I'm sure plenty of people out there listening to this album can sympathize with Stipe's desire to hear the Cheneys, Bushes, and Roves of the world finally get their come-uppance. Unfortunately, what the song describes hasn't yet come to pass, but it could still happen.
The two songs I love the most on the album are the final two. "Horse To Water" is yet another driving uptempo tune on an R.E.M. record that may contain more songs of this type than any record they've released, and certainly any they've released since they were on IRS Records. Its percussion-driven main riff is the sort of riff that embeds itself into your consciousness and sticks in your brain for entire afternoons, leading you (read: me) to tap your foot incessantly while waiting in line at the post office or the bank. The chorus could hurt the catchiness of the verse riff if it weren't just as catchy, if not in fact moreso. The lines "I'm not that easy, I am not your horse to water" are just another of the frequent defiant declarations that Michael Stipe makes on this album. It just makes it that much clearer that, despite what anyone might have thought three years ago, R.E.M. are far from finished as a creative unit.
"Horse To Water" is only 2:15 in length, and the final track, "I'm Gonna DJ", is even shorter, which is appropriate for an energetic, rocking album that wraps up in a mere 34 minutes. Too many bands make their albums too long in this era of the 80 minute CD, and tire the listener out before reaching the end. R.E.M. are old hands, though, and seem to realize that it's smarter to leave us wanting more. "I'm Gonna DJ" is a good song to wrap things up with, too--it works with "Horse To Water" to bring the album full-circle, leaving things at the same driving, uptempo level that was generated by the opening track. What's more, "I'm Gonna DJ" is a fucking blast to listen to. The words, in contrast to Stipe's reputation for overwhelming seriousness, are overtly playful, straightforwardly detailing the sheer fun of sitting around playing records at a party. The funniest part is in the third verse: "the weblogs that get tangled, as you wiggle and you wangle in your walk-up in Seattle where you fought the nascent battle. And you threw the thread and throttle--let us raise another bottle. Raise another bottle, raise another bottle!" Obviously Stipe sees through people like Pitchfork Media reviewers (or alternately, um, me), sitting around dissecting and overthinking records; he knows that the best thing to do is just crank it up and have fun.
Sounds good to me. Let's hear it again, shall we?
R.E.M. - Hollow Man
R.E.M. - I'm Gonna DJ
[Hah, every time I don't think I'm gonna write that much, I go ahead and write a lot anyway. I don't know why I ever worry about such things.]