The new, improved R.E.M.?
R.E.M. has already penned “The Finest Work Song.” Now would be a good time to come up with the finest pop song. The band has seen most of its fanbase dwindle since 1994’s Monster, and 2004’s Around the Sun was so resolutely bland and unmemorable that it could’ve been used as the soundtrack to a Lifetime movie. Career resuscitation is long overdue.
So along comes Accelerate. Produced by Jacknife Lee (U2, Bloc Party, The Hives), it’s both a transparent attempt to recapture past glories and an increasingly shrill cry of continued relevance. It’s about Peter Buck as much as it’s about Michael Stipe, and that means Buck is unleashed to play those ringing, descending “Ticket to Ride” lines all over this album. He’s also free to explore his inner Clash; he’s never played pop-punk chords like this before. Stipe is his usual irascible self. His songs will forever be couched in non-sequiturs and cryptic imagery, but he’s mad as hell about almost everything here, including himself, and he spits out these lyrics like bullets. The truth is that, for the first time in years, the two principal band members and combatants mesh perfectly. Michael Stipe hasn’t sounded this committed in more than a decade. And Peter Buck hasn’t thrown down chiming riffs and shimmering arpeggios like this since Fables of the Reconstruction and Life's Rich Pageant.
Opener “Living Well is the Best Revenge” wastes no time before raising the stakes. Buck plays George Harrison jangle, Mike Mills plays McCartney’s high bass runs, and Stipe plays the early, petulant Elvis Costello. It’s a rousing start for what’s clearly intended to be R.E.M.’s new rock ’n’ roll calling card. And, for the most part, the rock ’n’ roll holds up well. “Supernatural Superserious” nicks the classic riff from “Sweet Jane,” but evolves quickly enough into an old-school R.E.M. janglefest, with a massive, anthemic hook for a chorus. “Horse to Water” finds Buck channeling Mick Jones, detonating distorted punk power chords to match Stipe’s clipped, scattershot vitriol. To the band’s credit, there is a pissed-off urgency and energy in most of these songs, and the targets range from the usual political suspects (“Until the Day is Done,” “Mr. Richards”) to the symbols used by the mass media to play on our emotions (“Man-sized Wreath”) to the cynical heart of one Michael Stipe (“Hollow Man”).
But there are problems. There’s a lingering whiff of déjà vu about these tracks. There’s a restless energy here to be sure, but it’s energy that has been repackaged in familiar ways. There are also a few lingering reminders of the earnest triteness that dominated Around the Sun. “Horse to Water,” for all its sonic blast, is still little more than Stipe affirming that he can’t be led like a horse to water. Given the raging guitars, I’d hoped for something more than a simple twist on a cliché. And pensive folk ballad “Until the Day is Done,” which wants to be a State of the Union address, ends up being Gen X’s very own “Eve of Destruction,” a protest song so solemnly dour that global incineration seems like the better alternative.
Still, there’s some cautiously optimistic news for long-suffering fans. There’s good rock ’n’ roll here, and it’s vital and raw enough to be memorable. But there’s something calculated too, something demographically researched and meticulously executed in these songs. It comes through in the studied vulnerability of “Hollow Man,” a confession of cynicism and emotional manipulation that’s so smug and premeditated that one begins to suspect Stipe of the very cynicism and manipulation he’s singing about. Hey, listen kids, everybody hurts, even me. It comes through in the rousing closer “I’m Gonna DJ,” yet another apocalyptic rave, because it’s the end of the world as we know it, again, and somebody’s got to remind the forgetful throngs. As such, Accelerate isn’t a collection of new songs so much as it’s a marketing slogan that both hearkens back to the storied past and makes a case for the new, improved, hip-again R.E.M. They only got it partly right. The pedal isn’t on the floor, but the speedometer’s moving in the right direction.