R.E.M. – Accelerate

R.E.M. - AccelerateR.E.M.Accelerate (Warner Brothers)

If you haven’t heard, it’s been a while since the state of Georgia had a decent rainstorm and it’s been a while since we’ve had a decent album from R.E.M. While the weather in the Peach State is still in question, the early consensus is that the new R.E.M. album is a return to those fair-weather days of old and one that’s sure to please longtime fans.

Before we all start deeming Accelerate “the best R.E.M. album since…” let’s take a deep breath and allow all of that cynicism, resentment, and well-deserved ambivalence towards the band take hold and provide us with a much needed reality check.

The fact is, R.E.M. needed to make this album, so one has to consider the motivation behind it. It’s healthy to wonder if this album is a calculated attempt at salvaging a recording contract with Warners instead of winning back those fans who’ve given two shits about R.E.M. for some time.

You see, I’m one of “those guys” that used to fork over some serious cash for European imports of the band’s singles, limited edition copies of each release along with the regular versions and other fan-only merchandise.

After New Adventures In Hi-Fi, I really wanted to get rid of all of that overpriced collection. The direction (or lack thereof) that the band chose when drummer Bill Berry retired, seemed to place the band in a place above their fans. There is something unforgiveable about assuming how your audience will support, or at the very least tolerate, every single whim while turning your back on the fundamentals that helped bring you success.

For the past ten years, R.E.M. made me feel like a sap for liking them so much for so long and, if you haven’t guessed, I’m still a little bitter about it.

I wasn’t the only one: the band’s stock has sunk so low at this point that they may need to prove to their label that they can actually sell records. At the same time, this isn’t an era where Warners, or cd sales for that matter, mean much of anything. They’re going to prove it on the road and Accelerate sounds like a good record to play out on the road as well as a blatant attempt at getting those aforementioned saps like me to shell out some money and go see them.

But my resentment runs deep enough that I don’t plan to spend dime one for an overpriced ticket to see a band that has essentially released an album on par with their mediocre mid-period material.

You want names? Okay then: it’s as good as Green or Monster while being nowhere near Lifes Rich Pageant or any of the other I.R.S. albums, and not even close to the band’s last official masterpiece, Automatic For The People.

And after a decade of scratching their heads and providing their fans with any half-baked idea that they feel passes for an album, well sir, I’d say it’s time that they actually deliver another fucking masterpiece.

“Houston” is an update of “Swan Swan H.” “Horse To Water” mines similar pageantry (pun intended), and “I’m Gonna DJ,” perhaps the album’s strangest and strongest track, closes Accelerate with the same abandon of the band’s earliest curios.

There’s probably another half-dozen decent radio-friendly units: the opener “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” is this year’s “Pop Song ’89.” “Supernatural Superserious” would get tons of airplay if this were still 1994. To be fair, everything on Accelerate is fine. However, outside of the pleasing notion of familiarity, they all seem to lack the emotional requirements and rustic feel to have me returning back to it in a year or two.

It’s Peter Buck‘s album, with a welcomed focus on the three facets of his guitarwork: the arpeggio jangle of the early releases, the guitar crunch of Monster, and the kudzu-strew back porch acoustics of everything in between.

Stipe‘s delivery is noticeably feral and Mike Mills‘ sweet backing vocals make a welcomed return, reaffirming that his contributions may indeed be R.E.M.’s secret weapon all of these years.

With all of these acknowledgements to their past, Accelerate is an album that isn’t able to recreate it. Indeed, R.E.M. does a great job of acting like a band again without really sounding like one. Sure, there’s the issue of the drummer, pointlessly overplayed by the dude that used to play for Ministry, of all bands. But I’m not one to point to Bill Berry’s retirement as the sole cause for the band’s bad sense of direction or general aloofness. There were hints for many years that the band was steering off course even when he was still with them, but his departure really put that reality into the spotlight.

So we’re back again to the idea of the motivation behind this album, while understanding that R.E.M. is professional enough to pull off a “return to form” record without actually doing so. Forgive me if I’m a little hesitant to believe that R.E.M. has truly seen the light yet. The next album will confirm it, and only then by returning to the metaphorical back porch, carefully considering why they’re making music to begin with. Hint hint: It’s not because the record company wants a return on their investment, or because they need to regain their diminishing fan base, or even because it’s expected of them. There was a time when they created music because their record collection(s) inspired them to do so, and now they need to do the same thing, particularly when there’s an entire generation that’s not aware of how inspiring R.E.M. could really be.

Until then, the draught in Georgia continues.

Video: R.E.M. – “Supernatural Superserious”

12 thoughts on “R.E.M. – Accelerate”

  1. Nice piece again, Todd. I dunno what to do on this one. Like you, it’s been a long time since I cared about a new R.E.M. album. I like to give the band the benefit of the doubt on their spotty, post-“Automatic” work. I think they’ve been restless, casting about for sounds that excite them, whether they excite the fans or not. There’s merit in that. There’s also a lot of crap music in that. I haven’t heard note 1 off this album yet, but I seriously wonder if I need new R.E.M. music with so much other compelling music to listen to, including all the R.E.M. albums through “Automatic for the People.” I’ll check it out, I guess. I wonder if I’ll buy it.

  2. i was in the same boat somewhat as you guys excpet that i wasn’t in any way bitter and i liked some of their post automatic work. not all of it worked, but some of it was actually really good stuff. around the sun though was not. it was terrible. the songs themselves are fine live but their studio counterparts sucked.

    it was after around the sun that i grew listless of r.e.m. and began listening to them less. my collection of r.e.m. music was down to handfull of albums and a couple of best of’s. the buzz for accelerate got me excited. the first single proved my excitement right.

    still i was leary of them pulling it off again. i started catching r.e.m. fever though and when accelerate dropped i was floored. so floored of the leak that i bought two copies the first week it came out.

    this is truly their best work since out of time for me. i’ll have to wait and see if this still holds true on down the road. but at the moment i am an r.e.m. fan again.

    this album for me was not caculated or anything else like that. this is the sound of a band that has found themselves and has put out their best foot foward. sure, i can be seen as a die hard fan to some extent. but i was a die hard fan who no longer was all that die hard. this album has brought me back around.

  3. I wouldn’t say I’m at all bitter about R.E.M. Like I said, there’s merit in changing your sound and trying new things. That doesn’t mean it’s gonna result in good albums though. But I don’t think they owe me or any fan a certain type of album, the ol’ “R.E.M. sound” or whatever. So I didn’t become bitter or feel betrayed… I became disinterested.

  4. i was refering the review and the reviewer not you. i should’ve probably clarified. sorry about that.

  5. I think Accelerate is an excellent record. Not life-altering or genre-defining, but very worthwhile.

    It has most (all?) of the requisite REM hallmarks. Arpeggiated guitars, circular melodies, somewhat oblique lyrics, Stipe’s tenor carrying a counter-melody to the guitars, bouncy bass, and Mills’ secret-weapon backing vox.

    The record is a little short, and oddly enough I find it lacking one or two of those REM ballads that sneak up on yover time (see also: Fall On Me, I’ll Take The Rain, Sweetness Follows). But I suppose the point of the record was to be concise and energetic.

    I think my favourite thing about the record is that it kind of sounds like several other records the band has made (well-documented in the reviews), without sounding like they’re repeating themselves.

    Looking forward to seeing them in Vancouver in a few weeks, too!

  6. Regarding bitterness: I think that they owed fans better albums than what they got. And for someone like me who invested a lot of time and money in R.E.M., well that’s where my feelings originate. These are smart guys; I think that they know prior to putting out a lame record that it is indeed lame. So excuse me for feeling that they could have taken part of that $80,000,000 (count the zeros) advance they got when they resigned with WB and sat on said lame album(s). Why are fans subjected to the band’s half-baked whims, stalling points until they find what direction they want to go to, expecting those fans (like me at one time) to help fund their unrealized projects? So now we’re at another point where a new contract is due and then suddenly R.E.M. has sharpened their sound and decided to revisit the elements that brought them success? And you don’t feel a bit suspect of that? One would think that when your drummer leaves and gives the old “I just didn’t feel it” resignation letter that there are probably others in the organization that felt the same way; and their post Hi-Fi work would kind of affirm that. It’s restless, unfocused, and trying like hell to break out of the mold.

    My opinion would be that you get your shit together when your drummer leaves for that reason. Meaning, you lock yourself in the rehearsal space and have a candid discussion about if anyone else feels that way and you examine the reasons why you’re carrying on without one of the founding members. I don’t think they did that. In fact, I think the band went away from the original notion that when one leaves, the rest will follow suit.

    So I don’t trust them, and that’s the nagging complaint with Accelerate.

    I don’t mind the brevity of the album, in fact, I embrace it. Any artist today that want to hold close to the old-school idea of a top notch 35-45 minute long players is on the right path in my book. But make no mistake, this is not a top-notch long player, it’s an ok long player, and I think the band understands that the new money is in the Acceleratetour and not in the record anyway. If they get a bunch of hype, more fans will hear it, and then they’ll show up at the shows. My entire argument is that these guys, with their history, have the ability to still deliver “that” record and, at this point, they need to. We’re applauding them for turning the ship around. Let me know when they’ve arrived at the port of higher expectations.

  7. i don’t think they got that $80,000,000 advance right off the bat. i think it was paid over time. as for the contract, it’s not up. they’ve got one more album left to do for warner. bill berry’s depature is an odd one and a story that seems to get messed most of the time.

    he didn’t feel it anymore. but he hadn’t felt it for a long time. this started brewing back in the 80’s. bill started growing increasing tired of the whole thing. by 1993 things got even worse. bill was ready to leave.

    the band talked things over and had thought that they patched things up. it wasn’t patched and bill eventually left. the remaning members didn’t take their decision to remain r.e.m. lightly, but they did screw up. they themselves admit that they should not have recorded so soon after bill left. they like up, but they have their misgivings about it.

    the band’s been very vocal about a lot of the problems they’ve had since bill left. they admit to being diretionless in some ways and admit they were taking too long to record their albums now. from what i’ve about accelerate it wasn’t an attempt to gain back fans, to pander to the label, or anything else like that. they were repsonding to the problems they were having themselves in the recording process.

  8. I’ve always liked REM but never been a fan, so I’m probably a little more objective about them than some here. I happen to like the new album. It sounds fresh and they seem invigorated by it. However, IMHO, I dunno if comparing it to Monster does the new one any favors. (Monster is one of very few albums I’ve ever returned to the record store and demanded my money back. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute also bears that sad distinction.) What’s interesting to me is that what has been dwindling over the years is REM’s record sales but not their concert draw. And at this point, who else but the faithful are out there catching those shows?

    Also, as a musician, I think artists need to continually put their work out there, if they believe in it. And let the chips fall where they may. If it doesn’t really pan out, you get back to work and keep at it. You need to be creating as steadily as you can. And maybe, creatively speaking, that’s what the last decade has been for REM. And as much as I may not be thrilled to listen to another lukewarm release by anybody, I certainly don’t advocate waiting for inspiration to strike and hoping it gives you your (next) masterpiece. That’s just dangerous. What if what you thought was phenomenal and waited to put out there turns out to be not that great AND is poorly recieved by the public? What does that do to an artist’s confidence?

    All the great artists with longevity have a span of classics and a span of duds in their discographies. Hopefully this album marks, if not another spurt of the former, then at least the beginning of a run of decent records from a band that still might have a couple of good ones left.

  9. I believe that REM are going through what Dylan went through in the late 70’s and 80’s. he had his classic albums run then dried up and struggled inbetween putting out a few more sporadic classic albums. the dudes need to work at it and in the meantime put out some tukeys, some OK albums and then stumble on some classics. That being said I think the three of them have been REM for so long it scares them to NOT be REM. Thats why they dont quit. And the classic way REM works is the three guys jamming and bringing music to Stipe. Ironic that their best album, automatic didnt work that way, But thats the best way REM work as a band overall. They need a DRUMMER.

  10. The bes thing about the new album is that the old stuff fits nicely in a setlist. Check out what they played in Vancouver last night:

    Gardening At Night

    West Of The Fields

    Second Guessing

    Time After Time (Annelise)

    Disturbance At The Heron House

    They also did a gorgeous acoustic version of Let Me In.

    I haven’t bought an R.E.M. album since HiFi, but I never miss a chance to see them play live.

  11. Just got home from the Vancouver gig. It was like stepping through a tear in the space-time continuum. Songs from Reckoning. Songs from Murmur. A song from Chronic Town. Are you kidding me?

    It really felt like a band that wanted to reconnect with its history. Case in point – they resurrected “Ignoreland” and it sounded contemporary. Definitely worth checking out if they’re coming to your area.

    Usually when a band leaves several of my favourite songs out of the setlist, I feel let down. Not after this show, though.

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