First, a note. I wrote this piece originally for Athens’ Flagpole magazine but due to jammed deadlines and unavoidable delays they received the piece several days later than planned and were forced to make quick editing decisions that wound up losing some of my original intention. Add that to the normal space constraints of print-media and the piece that will run in this weeks paper is pretty close to what I wrote but different in some important ways. Ultimately, though, the changes were unavoidable given the facts mentioned above. Still, I feel close to this piece and thus have decided to publish it here in its unedited form. Mad props, though, to my new music editor Michelle who patiently waited through scheduling delays, cancellations and other hoops we had to jump through to produce this. You can read the printed version here. My own, ego-boosting version is below.
Listen To The Band: R.E.M. Roars With Accelerate
The news of R.E.M.’s fourteenth studio album traversed the world last year as the band performed its “live rehearsals” in Dublin, Ireland. Optimistic reviewers championed the band’s “return to form” and renewed energy with regard to, you know, actually being a band. The band’s last four albums (1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi, 1998’s Up, 2001’s Reveal and 2004’s Around the Sun) had all received critical reactions ranging from confused irritation to shoulder-shrugging begrudging acceptance to outright slaughter. As one who had found moments of beauty, insight and bliss in each of these I was never quite comfortable with the predictions of a “return to form” that had been preached about Accelerate. As a band that has made significant artistic jumps through its 28 years R.E.M. has never fit any form other than being R.E.M. And the R.E.M. form, if it can be defined at all, is one that allows for total creative freedom.
Perhaps, with regard to those four albums, I was prepared to forgive them a multitude of sins in return for having already granted me a lifetime of memories. But, I don’t really think this is the case. For inasmuch as those albums were not the second volumes of Murmur, Reckoning and Life’s Rich Pageant neither were they illogical entries into the R.E.M. canon. I’ve always found the single most odd-ball, too-much-of-its-time R.E.M. album to be 1994’s Monster. (Oddball single tracks? “Radio Song” from 1991’s Out Of Time and “The Outsiders” from Around The Sun.) The fact is that R.E.M. have always excelled at making timeless music. Even when engaging contemporary themes the band’s records seemed to never exist solely in the time of their release. Conversely, R.E.M. never sounded as out of place, as instantaneously dated, as they did when incorporating guest hip-hop vocalists or playing up campy, glam-rock. That said, even those steps can be seen as consistent with the R.E.M. ethic of doing exactly what they want, when they want. Member Peter Buck famously remarked in the 1980’s that he would rather sell fewer records but make exactly the records he wanted to than have to adjust his creativity to please an audience. For the past twelve years audiences have rewarded this stance by purchasing significantly fewer R.E.M. records. I would like to think that this was because Buck had made exactly the records he wanted to make.
Significantly, with the exception of the Man On The Moon soundtrack and the bands live shows, R.E.M. has sounded quite isolated. That is, the albums have had a distance in them that translated initially to feelings of separation but, later, to lethargy. Not a tiredness that comes from an exhaustive foray into excited musicality but, rather, one that accompanies a loneliness; a depressive state caused from too much wondering, worrying and wandering. By the time of Around The Sun R.E.M. didn’t even sound like band anymore. That is, we knew it was still Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe on those records but missing was the sense of togetherness, the band-as-street-gang feeling that the best groups have always had. What we received instead were musical post cards that seemed to pass individually through the members hands and were recorded by accident. While never sounding phoned-in or particularly shallow the records resounded with an apartness that left me wondering, at times, if they were even in the same studio while recording. Further, the overwhelming sadness on Up and, especially, Around The Sun rendered them appropriate only to solitary, late-night listening sessions.
The point is R.E.M. had never lost the form of being R.E.M.-creative-changeling but had seemingly stopped being R.E.M-as-band. Just as lonesome-sounding records seem to reflect the mood of an individual the best Rock and Roll records have always had a joyous collectivity to them. And where there’s an “us” there tends to be very little lonesomeness. All of which is to say that, more than anything else, Accelerate is a declaration of “us”-ness. Its arrival marks the first studio-recorded evidence of R.E.M. sounding like a band in over a decade.
The first thing you’ll notice about Accelerate is its immediacy. It’s all just so…there. The band opens the album with “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” and, in doing so, succeeds in having the strongest album opener since “Finest Worksong” on 1987’s Document. Peter Buck leads the charge into the track with what can only be called the classic, R.E.M. ringing-guitar. The main riff is a slight slide up the guitar neck and individually plucked strings and when the hook, a three chord rave-up, kicks in with the chorus there’s that unmistakable feeling of “I’ve been here before”. And, of course, we have. The song plays like a clarion call as if to say ‘listen up’. Lyrically, Michael Stipe uses all his force to bark out “I’m not one to sit and spin/’Cause living well’s the best revenge/Baby, I am calling you on that.” The poignancy of this line comes not, however, from the standard interpretation of the title phrase which would mean something along the lines of ‘being successful and rich is the best way to exact revenge on your naysayers.’ Significantly, the line is a quote from 17th century Welsh priest George Herbert who most likely spoke of ‘living well’ in terms of ‘living righteously’. That is, doing the right thing. Given the current, most arguably disastrous, state of U.S. politics and the fact that those attempting, at least by their own standards, to live righteously are regularly reviled then “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” is the possibly the most us-against-them anthem that R.E.M. has ever recorded. Hence, the lines “Don’t turn your talking points on me/ History will set me free/The future’s ours/and you don’t even rate the footnote now!” However, there’s also a feeling in the song that the ‘us’ in question is more than simply the band members. There is, of course, lots of room for us on the bandwagon.
In a move that makes the album feel very live the next track is a solid stomp of a thing called “Man-Sized Wreath”. This is also the track in which Mike Mill’s background vocals, mostly harmonizing except for his extended note held at the very end, come into more focus. Which means this is a perfect place for me to state, for the record, that Mill’s background vocals have always been R.E.M.’s secret weapon. Even in the days when it was impossible to decipher a single Stipe lyric Mill’s airy, gentle vocals, regardless of their volume, gave the songs direction. The same is true here.
The first single from the album, “Supernatural Superserious”, shows up as the third track on the album. Although it’s a brand new R.E.M. song there’s another gut feeling of having been here before. This time it comes through Buck’s three-two-three guitar strumming. As much a standard rock-n-roll phrasing as anything (if you’ve heard “Louie Louie” or, to a slightly lesser extent, “Start Me Up” then you’ve heard it) in the hands of R.E.M. it’s possessive of none of its cliché potential. Rather, it’s the band utilizing Rock and Roll musical language. A thoughtful portrayal of teenage social isolation the song is more hymn that biography. Stipe sings, “If your fantasies are/Dressed up in travesties/Enjoy yourself with no regrets” but ends the song with “Nobody cares no one remembers/ and nobody cares.” It’s ripe for interpretation as to whether what is meant is that former tormentors have already forgotten their object or that, ultimately, all is forgiven. Nothing is made clearer, either, by Stipe’s seeming resignation as he sings the final lines.
The first instance of Accelerate slowing down comes in the verse parts of “Hollow Man”. The gentle piano opening and Stipe’s cracking vocals lead the song into an emotionally incongruous chorus. The song, a bare confession of cruelty, shallowness and self-centeredness, has the protagonist admitting, “I took the prize last night/for complicatedness/ for saying things I didn’t mean/and don’t believe.” Ultimately, though, a sing-along chorus that declares “believe in me/believe in nothing” is either the speaker declaring himself to be nothing or that there is nothing worth believing in. Then, the onus is put on the victim when the songs says “Corner me and make me something”. It’s one thing to surrender oneself to the power of another individual and it’s quite another thing to request, and strongly so, that said person ‘fix’ you. Because of this, as confessional and honest as the song is, it’s ultimately a confused ode to selfishness. As such, it succeeds by continually wrestling with what it already knows. That is, how does one declare himself weak and in need of help without seemingly placing that responsibility upon the object he has already hurt? R.E.M. explores this theme completely in a mere two-and-a-half minutes. That the chorus is so uplifting and burden easing renders the entire song more chilling. Thus, “Hollow Man” is the first grand success of Accelerate.
After the contemplative, heavily fuzzed and organ laden “Houston” is the darkly urgent title track. “Accelerate” is, both musically and thematically, the same apocalyptic, end-of-the-world vision hinted at in Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” (coincidentally covered by R.E.M. on the 1991 tribute album to Cohen, I’m Your Fan).
However, whereas Cohen’s mood was somberly resolved, R.E.M.’s is dedicated but frenzied; observant but defiantly incredulous. . Stipe sings, “Where is the ripcord, the trapdoor, the key?/Where is the cartoon escape-hatch for me?/No time to question the choices I make I’ve got to follow another direction… I’m incomplete/I’m incomplete /I’m incomplete.” Musically, the track is a heavy, heartbeat-throb of a song with much of the effect coming directly from drummer Bill Rieflin. There’s a consistent, electric-shock of a lead sitting just under everything in the mix. Added to the overall, persistent, Future Shock-sensibility the only proper reaction after listening is to exhale.
The chorus of “Mr. Richards” is cheerfully buoyant, although the song is about someone going to prison. His victims, however, are set free to pursue the future. Presumably a political figure, Mr. Richards is never explicitly in a real-life prison but, for me at least, in a rock-and-hard-place prison of having made his choices, being judged and resolutely rejected by a cheering mass. Further, even as Stipe expresses happiness he is tenderly recognizing of even his enemies humanity. He sings, “Mr. Richards, you’re forgiven/For a narrow lack of vision/But the fires are still raging on… You’re mistaken if you think we’ll just forget.”
The defiant refusal of “Horse To Water” is a chill-inducing, thrill ride. Punctuated by Buck’s single-note riffing at the start of each barked lyric before blasting into the full, distorted-guitar realm of “fuck off” politics the song makes saying no fun again. That is, the time to rise may have been engaged but shouting ‘No!’ is good for the soul, too. I easily hit ‘repeat’ a full five times to hear Stipe sing these lines: “I could have kept my head down /I might have kept my mouth shut/I should have held my own,/You lead a horse to water and you watch him drown…Don’t you know that what comes around goes around?
/I’m not that easy/I am not your horse to water” (emphasis added).
Accelerate rounds itself off in house-party mode with “I’m Gonna DJ.” A simple, garage rocker, the song is a casting off of the heaviness that has preceded it on the album.
It functions, however, not as an alleviation but, rather, as a catalyst to remind us that what matters, and what has always mattered, is the music itself. Stipe sings, “If death is pretty final/I’m collecting vinyl/I’m gonna DJ at the end of the world…Hey steady steady… I don’t wanna go till I’m good and ready.” As easily interpreted as a literal end-of-the-world party as a barely veiled reaction to those who had written R.E.M. off, the song reminds me of nothing so much as the tracks present on early R.E.M. bootlegs that never got recorded. The house-party, set-filling rock-n-roll escapes.
Accelerate is full of similar reminders. The verse melody of “Mr. Richards” recalls “King of Birds” just as surely as Buck’s opening notes to “Accelerate” recall “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”. The guitar passage at 1:45 on “Hollow Man” is very similar to the opening notes of “Pretty Persuasion” just as the overall mood of “Houston” places thought of “I Remember California” in my mind.
But the point isn’t that R.E.M. has simply dug into their past and reworked it for our gratification. Neither is it the case that R.E.M. has ever had a particular sound that they were necessarily married to. It is, however, the case that through 28 years and,now, 14 albums the band has consistently created it’s own voice. It is also the case that their voice has been, for too long, buried to near silence by albums that saw the band not seeming to be speaking, musically, to each other. Accelerate is a triumphant return, not to a uniqueness the band never lost, but to R.E.M. being a band again. Even with its serious, sometimes devastatingly so, subject nature Accelerate is a celebration. It is as musically thrilling as it is politically hopeful. And, ultimately, it is as much a gift from the band to themselves as it is a gift to us.
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