Feeling Gravity's Pull: R.E.M. hurtles toward the future on Accelerate

At what point in a band's career is it impossible to evaluate its new album without referencing its back catalog? Just ask R.E.M., whose albatross is its past — at least, every time they release a record and people whine that it doesn't sound like R.E.M. circa 1983, 1986, 1992 or 1996, etc. A five-night live residency in Dublin, Ireland, last July didn't help matters. Old songs R.E.M. hadn't played in decades ("Kohoutek" and "Second Guessing" were dusted off for the first time since 1986) fit snugly alongside new songs — which actually did resemble the ragged, wiry speedballs of the Athens, Georgia, band's fiery garage youth.

R.E.M.'s Jack Knife Lee-produced fourteenth studio album, Accelerate, certainly lives up to its speedy title. The collection is loud, quick and dirty, spinning by so fast that it takes multiple listens to absorb. It's full of buzzing guitars and stream-of-conscious discontent, along with an abundance of Mike Mills' choirboy harmonies and sinewy bass.

And yes, musically, Accelerate's songs hint at past eras — fuzzy riffs à la 1994's Monster (the title track); the dirty distortion and droning yowls of 1988's Green ("Mr. Richards"); orchestrated elegance circa 1992's Automatic for the People ("Houston"); and the slick political earnestness of 1987's Document ("Until the Day is Done"). But the album's interpretations of the past are colored by experience, wisdom and, most important, time. R.E.M. isn't a band full of rowdy college darlings or alt-rock weirdos anymore — and doesn't seem interested in revisiting its quirky adolescence. Not to mention that it's unfair to expect the band to be the cryptic poets they were in 1983 — even if Accelerate's overarching theme revolves around keeping youthful idealism alive.

R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe accelerates at Stubb's BBQ during South by Southwest.
Annie Zaleski
R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe accelerates at Stubb's BBQ during South by Southwest.

In fact, the amped-up atmosphere of Accelerate is unique within the R.E.M. catalog, and it doesn't resemble the mood of previous releases — meaning that you can't exactly herald it as a return to form (whatever that means, anyway). That's the true genius of the band — and why its past albums remain so listenable: Each R.E.M. release has a distinct personality, because they're adroit at finding cohesion in disparate, if not unorthodox and enigmatic, elements.

Above all, what stands out most is that the band sounds like it's having fun again. R.E.M.'s previous three albums were meticulous, mannered and frequently moving — 1998's Up is an unheralded classic — but often felt strained or out-of-focus. But on Accelerate, the music sounds effortless, crisp and breezy. If there's a quibble, it's that the sequencing of the album seems off in places; the slower songs seem ill-placed, simply because the fast songs are so speedy in comparison.

But R.E.M. has always made the album it's wanted to make, at whatever time it's wanted — with whatever messages it's felt like conveying. Accelerate is no different. Here's a track-by-track analysis.

"Living Well's the Best Revenge": Peter Buck's molten riffs race by, jangling through hyperspace at warp speed. Vocalist Michael Stipe, his voice tinged with gravel and scorn, snarls lines such as, "Don't turn your talking points on me/History will set me free/The future is ours." He positively spits the chorus: "I'm not one to sit and spin/'Cause living well's the best revenge." The innocent narrator of the similarly styled 1986 song "I Believe" — the one who believed in "time as an abstract" — is twenty years older and wizened from life. But he's mad as hell — and isn't going to let his youthful idealism die.

"Man Sized Wreath": A song originally meant to be a B-side, but elevated to an album track apparently after it was so well-received in Dublin. Deceptively jaunty garage-rock riffs have a bouncy, busy feel. Like on "Well," copper-plated background harmonies from Mike Mills wind around Stipe's off-the-cuff choruses. Think Guided by Voices or the Pixies.

"Supernatural Superserious": Glossy and instantly memorable, it's a classic R.E.M. single featuring prominent Mike Mills vocals and bright Peter Buck guitars. But in context with the album, it almost feels like it should have been the first track. Moreover, I still have no idea how to parse the summer camp/loner/ghost metaphors throughout — although it's no "leaving was never my proud" (as the chorus of "Leaving New York" painfully went). Michael Stipe also rhymes "humiliation" with "station," so that's a plus.

"Hollow Man": Far and away my favorite song on the album. The song fakes out listeners at first, as it begins with beatific, somber solo piano and a vulnerable Stipe gruffly singing, "I've been lost inside my head/Echoes fall on me." But waves of crashing riffs suddenly arrive on the chorus, signaling the narrator's horror that he's become a "hollow man." The happy-ending sequel to Up's "Sad Professor" lyrically, the song ends with the plea: "Believe in me, believe in nothing/Corner me and make me something." Confident bursts of jangly guitar ebb and flow from restrained to loudly triumphant, mirroring the narrator's wild-eyed regret at his life — and his burning desire to transcend this feeling.

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