There’s been a lot of what could best be described as apprehensive anticipation surrounding the release of R.E.M.’s fourteenth studio album. First, a confession to make: I’m going into this relatively cold. I haven’t heard much of R.E.M.'s recent work since I’ve taken myself away from the rock music scene and headed toward a jazzier side of life. Nevertheless, R.E.M. always stood out in my memory as being one of the “good ones.”
A perusal of various message boards and a sampling of various songs led me to the discovery that I haven’t actually missed too much after my last go-around with the Georgian band. New Adventures in Hi Fi was the album I had last spun, so I had missed the “opulence” that was 1998’s fan-alienating Up (although I had heard “Daysleeper” and found it to be an passable song), slept through Reveal from 2001 (despite the decent “Imitation of Life”), and totally ignored Around the Sun from 2004, which I’m told included an appearance by Q-Tip. I may actually have to track that down.
Long story short, the first sounds of any full R.E.M. record to grace my speakers in a long time is 2008’s Accelerate. The single, “Supernatural Superserious,” was released in February and charted rather well. R.E.M. used Jackknife Lee to produce this time, going with the Snow Patrol/U2/Bloc Party/The Hives producer over the producer of their last three albums (phew!) Patrick McCarthy.
Part of the reason Accelerate might sound so good is because it was made quickly and organically. The album was recorded in about nine weeks at Grouse Lodge in Ireland and was mixed in ten days. "We spent less time making this record than we have in 20 years", Michael Stipe told the Guardian in January of 2008. "I feel like there's a confidence in the material and a communication between the three of us which hasn't been there for some time.”
The sound of Accelerate is effortless and almost rustic, conjuring visions of early guitar-driven work. The opening flourish of the album’s opener, a fast-rocker fittingly entitled “Living Well’s the Best Revenge,” introduces us to R.E.M. yet again. Stipe’s voice is rough and always earthy and his wails fit the pace of the tune flawlessly. I’m impressed.
The album continues on, coursing through an assortment of the fastest songs Stipe and Co. have put out in years. At around 35 minutes, Accelerate is certainly a worthy title. The swiftness and attitude of the album is absolutely on-point, too, and provides some of the most notable R.E.M. moments in quite some time. “Hollow Man” hearkens back to the strength and spirit of what I loved about Automatic for the People with one of the most hummable and lyrically-strong choruses in quite some time.
All of Accelerate feels like a rediscovery of rock for the band. There are protest songs (“Houston”) and there are brooding and important ballads (“Until the Day is Done”), but most of all there are brilliant songs that work as well musically as they do lyrically.
Stipe is stellar here, probably at his best in years, as he sings like a prize fighter prepping for the showdown in the ring. His vocals rise and fall proficiently, the profundity is evident, and his lyrics are tough and often angry. Just when things reach the depths of darkness, though, Accelerate turns around and runs jubilantly for the exits on the gleeful yet cynical “I’m Gonna DJ.”
Fans of R.E.M. can raise their heads again and know that the band is no longer a “three-legged dog.” Others, like myself, can rest avowed in the knowledge of rock’s ability to redeem and rebuild. Accelerate is redemption for R.E.M. and, as such, it is redemption for their fans. Victory at last.