Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Accelerating With R.E.M.

As I’ve done with pretty much every R.E.M. album from the past decade, I bought this year’s Accelerate promptly upon its release, listened to it half-heartedly once or twice, and then put it aside. (Disclaimer: As someone who traces his musical development in large part to the mid-80s college radio scene, I am a sworn devotee of R.E.M.’s IRS years [1980-1987], and while I’ve enjoyed various post-Document albums and continue to listen to a lot of them, or at least parts of them, they could record the greatest album in the history of the universe tomorrow and it would still never hold a candle to Murmur and Reckoning. Just saying.) Anyway, Accelerate was hailed as a glorious return to form by many fans and critics, most of whom – and I strongly agree – found the preceding three albums, all recorded since the 1997 departure of drummer Bill Berry, to be somewhat underwhelming. And though there’s no question that the harder-rocking, distortion-drenched, mid-fi Accelerate adds a welcome dose of energy after the increasingly dull and unengaging music of the post-Berry era, on first listen I wasn’t quite sold. Yes, the crunchy riffs and catchy two-minute songs get your attention in a way that, say, 2004’s blase Around the Sun never managed, but sheer immediacy doesn’t necessarily equate to durability.

Fortunately, this has grown on me over time. (After putting it aside for awhile, having ripped it to my iPod but never listening to it, I was randomly reintroduced to it through the new iTunes Genius playlist-generating program. So hooray for Steve Jobs!) The closest parallel is obviously 1994’s Monster, their last turbocharged distortion-fest. But in some ways Accelerate is the fresher album. Monster, though underrated, is dragged down a bit by the dense, glam-like production, while Accelerate is crisper and more straight-ahead rocking (though a couple tracks at the end, most notably the highly annoying “I’m Gonna DJ,” are reminiscent of Monster). Of course, some of the distinction may just be a matter of context. Monster, following on the heels of 1992’s mega-selling beautifully-written-and-produced AOR-friendly hit Automatic For The People, was a ballsy move but perhaps an unnecessarily jarring and somewhat forced genre-shift (which is why it is one of the most frequently-found albums in used record store cut-out bins). In contrast, Accelerate, following on the heels of the lackluster, bloated, AOR-friendly disappointments Around the Sun and Reveal, is a much-needed and far more palatable genre-shift. (Of course, I should note that there appear to be a billion used copies of this selling dirt cheap on, so the parallels continue...)

The album starts strong, with five solid pop-rockers (interrupted by the more dirge-like "Houston,” which reminds me of an amped up “Swan Swan H”), any of which is equally suited for lead-off single status. Notably, while the poppier tracks are fine, my two favorites break a bit from the mold. The slightly slower and moodier “Mr. Richards,” rather than coming across like a basic latter-day R.E.M. song with some distorted guitars added to the mix, works a much more organic groove, with the fuzzed-out distortion sounding far more like part of the overall vibe rather than a tacked-on afterthought; plus, more than any of the other songs, Stipe’s vocals remind me of the old days, where the lyrics are chosen more for how they’ll sound in the mix than for what they may actually mean. (Oddly enough, the band doesn’t seem to share my love of this song; I downloaded multiple shows from their summer tour, and this is one of the few new songs that wasn’t on the setlist.) The other noteworthy track is the lone throwback, “Until the Day Is Done,” which would sound just fine on 1987’s Document. I can’t say I would respect the band much if they released an entire album trying to recapture the old IRS sound, but for a one-off it’s a nice contrast with the rest of the album.

All told, while it's hardly the return to the glory years hailed by some reviewers, it's certainly a more entertaining listen than the last three studio outings, and at least as good as the two before that (Monster and New Adventures In Hi Fi). Plus, like I said, you can get it used pretty damn cheap.

Official video for "Hollow Man":

Official video for "Supernatural Superserious":


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