Although we usually give our knee jerk reactions to anticipated releases every Friday, there was no waiting ’til the end of the week to share first impressions of this one — particularly when we have a friend so highly qualified to offer insight. Help us welcome Drive XV essayist/Pop Songs 08 proprietor/R.E.M. master Matthew Perpetua as he evaluates the latest from our favorite Athenians…
Back when I interviewed R.E.M.’s Mike Mills for the Drive XV project, he mentioned that one of the objectives the band had going into their fourteenth studio album was to write shorter songs. Well, they succeeded: Half of the tracks on Accelerate clock in at under three minutes, and a quarter of them are just barely over the two minute mark. In total, Accelerate zooms on by in 34 minutes, making it the shortest full-length in the band’s discography, and nearly half the length of Around The Sun, Up, and New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Despite a few folky dirges on the second half, the cumulative effect of Accelerate is a bit like a roller coaster ride — you wait forever to get on it (it’s been four years since Around The Sun!), it’s a total rush in the moment, and when it’s over, it leaves you wanting to go back and do it again.
Brevity probably wasn’t the band’s only motive in writing Accelerate. Whereas most everything R.E.M. has done since the departure of original drummer/co-songwriter Bill Berry a decade ago has come off like either a formal experiment or an exercise in craft, they sound positively hungry on this record. It’s almost impossible not to hear Accelerate as an attempt to win back old fans and regain the critical respect they’ve lost in the past ten years. That said, the music doesn’t sound desperate, forced, or designed for maximum commercial impact, as with U2’s last two records. If anything, they sound pissed-off and eager to brawl.
The rockers sound like juiced-up versions of their IRS-era rave-ups, but the songs are almost entirely devoid of nostalgia. Sure, they are certainly reconnecting with the sound of their early records, but they aren’t trying to recapture their youth. The thing is, they’ve never sounded older: Michael Stipe sings every number in his gruff, low register and comes across as being much older than he actually is, and even though the band have never sounded as aggro as they do on songs like “Horse To Water” and “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” the music conveys a bitter, resigned sort of anger that is increasingly typical of aging punks from the ’80s. (For example, check out Bob Mould’s new one, or anything Ian McKaye has done since the start of this decade.)
Let’s get into the individual songs, shall we?
1. “Living Well Is The Best Revenge”
Ideally, this should’ve been the first single, if just because no other song on the record is as effective in making the listener think “OMG R.E.M. IS BACK!!!” Basically, this is the band coming out swinging, with a tight, fast rocker that quickly establishes the aggressive, defiant tone of the album.
2. “Man-Sized Wreath”
It’s shocking to think that the band had originally relegated this one to b-side status. It’s a catchy, dynamic rocker that features some very inspired backing vocals from Mike Mills, and a nearly subliminal deep voice intoning the lyrics of the chorus just after Michael sings them.
3. “Supernatural Superserious”
Upon hearing the album in full, it’s easy to understand why this was pegged as the lead single. It may not be the best track, but it’s certainly the most commercial song on the record with its several instantly ingratiating hooks and a lovely backing vocal from Mike Mills. Lyrically, it’s basically a rewritten version of “Imitation Of Life” from Reveal, and yet another in Michael Stipe’s ongoing series of pep-talk tunes.
4. “Hollow Man”
This one has the best fake-out in the R.E.M. catalog: You think it’s going to be a tinkly piano ballad, but then it bolts off in the opposite direction, and shifts into a jumpy power-pop anthem. The lyrics are a bit on-the-nose, but eh, what can you do?
Consider this exhibit A for why the band were wise to become fixated on the length of the songs. On the last few R.E.M. albums, “Houston” would’ve been at least twice as long and would’ve likely worn out its welcome. However, at just over two minutes, the grim folk number has an air of mystery, and a potent atmosphere provided by a keyboard part that sounds a bit like Mike Mills accidentally leaning on an overdriven organ.
I can’t imagine that this is at all intentional, but some of Accelerate actually reminds me of late-period Guided By Voices, specifically the Isolation Drills album, and the way that record cross-breeds the jangle of early ’80s R.E.M. with cold, angular post-punk riffs and pseudo-prog structures.
7. “Until The Day Is Done”
This dour ballad isn’t the album’s finest moment, but it serves as a cool-out period in the running order, and its similarity to “Final Straw” from Around The Sun provides a connecting thread from Accelerate to the band’s more recent material. Don’t let that freak you out too much, though — it also sounds a bit like “Swan Swan H” from Lifes Rich Pageant.
8. “Mr. Richards”
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of Accelerate, “Mr. Richards” sets a gorgeous quasi-Simon & Garfunkel ballad to a blaring, somewhat shoegazer-ish guitar part, resulting in something that would’ve been a huge hit if it had come out in 1994. Perhaps not coincidentally, it bears a slight resemblance to R.E.M.’s biggest hit of that year, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”
9. “Sing For The Submarine”
“Sing For The Submarine” begins as a dirgey ballad, but morphs into a moody epic with a blistering solo and a thundering drums. Fans will no doubt be pleased to hear that the lyrics make deliberate references to oldies such as “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” “Electron Blue,” and “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
10. “Horse To Water”
Imagine “Little America” from Reckoning, but at triple speed and a hundred times more aggro. Imagine Mike Mills and Peter Buck with ‘roid rage. Imagine Michael Stipe running after you, threatening to “pound the daylights out of you.” You have just imagined this song.
11. “I’m Gonna DJ”
There are a few cringe-inducing lyrics in this Around The Sun tour staple, but it’s easy to forgive when the song is so joyful and urgent. It’s an inspired conclusion to the record, mainly because it so effectively contrasts its glee and humor with this apocalyptic paranoia. In other words, it’s R.E.M.’s version of “1999.”
Accelerate is out 4/1 on Warner.