The first time I saw R.E.M. was in June of 2008. They were in the midst of touring in support of their 14th full-length album, Accelerate, which had come out stateside on April 1 — 10 years ago this Sunday. It was the sort of overwhelming, perfect concert experience that comes with being a young, obsessive music fan seeing your heroes onstage for the first time ever, hearing (and being surprised to hear, in a few cases) some of your favorite songs of all time played live for the first time ever. It was, as it turned out, also the last time I saw R.E.M.
Given that Accelerate was a brisk 35 minute album dominated by uptempo rockers, the band was able to do it justice by the standards of veteran artists’ setlist-making: R.E.M. fit in roughly half of Accelerate for themselves and for the listeners who stuck with them for each album, and the rest of the show featured an expansive collection of hits, fan favorites, and left-turn deep cuts from across their twenty-something years of existence. They went all the way back to “Wolves, Lower” and “These Days“; they inverted your Automatic For The People expectations by forgoing “Drive” and “Everybody Hurts” in favor of “Ignoreland” and “Find The River.” They gave spotlights to lesser-explored or -appreciated corners of their catalog, dusting off Green’s “Turn You Inside-Out” and representing their underrated 1998 release Up via “Walk Unafraid.”
They did a moving acoustic rendition of Monster’s peak, the harrowing and heartbreaking “Let Me In,” after which you’d swear Michael Stipe was wiping tears from his eyes. New Adventures In Hi-Fi — their 1996 darkhorse masterpiece — got two slots, for “Departure” and “Electrolite,” which remains one of their finest songs. Latter-day singles like “Imitation Of Life” and “The Great Beyond” sat perfectly alongside the heavy-hitters like “Man On The Moon” and “Orange Crush” and “Losing My Religion.”
All of which is to say: It was about as perfect a summation of their varied, storied career as you could ask for, even while they were ostensibly promoting a new album. All of which is to say: It was one of those nights where a handful of legends walk out in front of you and show you why and how they became legends.
Over the course of the night, R.E.M. held all of their identities at once — the indie pioneers of the ’80s, the alt-rock titans who helped usher in the underground’s mainstream takeover in the ’90s, the experimentalism and subsequent revivalism of the post-Bill Berry years. They also traced the years of not just their own catalog, but of the music world they interacted with and helped shape. For openers, they had tapped Modest Mouse — several years into their fluke indie-hit crossover moment — and a then-rising the National (who were riding a slow-building wave of buzz on the heels of their 2007 opus Boxer), thus bridging multiple generations of indie rock that had, in some form, happened because of what bands like R.E.M. did in the ’80s.
Eddie Vedder, himself a titan of ’90s alt-rock who was also deeply indebted to R.E.M., came out to sing “Begin The Begin” with them. (As soon as he appeared onstage, my first thought was: He has to sing the “Silence means security” part in the second verse, where the vocals hit a slight uptick of intensity. And, sure enough, he did. And he killed it.) And for the final two songs of the night, “Fall On Me” and “Man On The Moon,” they had an extra guitarist onstage — none other than Johnny Marr, who might’ve been touring with Modest Mouse at the time but was a contemporary, a fellow indie-origins luminary of R.E.M.’s from back in the day.
All of which is to say: Seeing R.E.M. for the first time in 2008 felt like an embarrassment of riches, an invigorated run through not only one of the strongest catalog’s in pop history but also a small nod to where indie rock had been, where it was, where it felt like it was going from one of the genre’s godheads. I wanted to see them as many times as possible after that night. They were, as the story went those days, an aging band that had just been revitalized, after all.
Of course, in hindsight, it’s all too easy to look back at all those same details about that show, the far-ranging song selection and the guests, and see the writing on the wall. To see that this was a finale, not a rebirth setting the stage for a whole new chapter. To see that with Accelerate, R.E.M. had started to write their way out.
Ever since Berry’s departure in 1997, R.E.M. had been different. This is what’s often been referred to as the “three-legged dog” era, at first a way of summing up how significant Berry’s departure was and how severely it upended the band’s way of existing, but later with a certain connotation — the idea that R.E.M. stumbled and fought along through another five albums until the remaining trio of Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills decided to quit in 2011.
As with any iconic band that continues for three decades and touches millions of people, there are schisms in R.E.M.’s fanbase — those who got into them with the ubiquitous ’90s hits, those who remain fervently loyal to the band’s ’80s college-rock roots, those who love a bit of everything. But regardless of your personal outlook, and regardless of the gems you might dig up, the post-Berry R.E.M.’s narrative has always felt set in stone. These were the listless, confused years as these three men had to fight harder to find their direction.
This idea has always done a disservice to the adventurousness that was already germinating on New Adventures In Hi-Fi and shot off into all sorts of new places when Berry left following that album. There was the anxious and brooding electronica of Up, there was Reveal’s pristine summer melancholy. Both of those albums have their defenders. But the one that came next, 2004’s Around The Sun, often seems nearly universally reviled.
For fans who were already uneasy about R.E.M. continuing on without Berry, or with their flirtations with aesthetics outside of their strain of rock, Around The Sun was a disaster. A mellowed, meditative collection dominated by acoustic guitars and the polite atmospherics reminiscent of the post-Britpop artists of the time, it came across as a middle-aged R.E.M. falling into a kind of adult-contemporary disconnect. People hate this album — and, looking back at the whole scope of R.E.M.’s career, perhaps they hate it a little unfairly. There are beautiful moments across Around The Sun, starting with the pangs of its opener “Leaving New York” but especially in its final act with the static sadness of “High Speed Train,” the rainy day groove of “The Ascent Of Man,” or its multi-part title track closer.
Still, no matter how much of a R.E.M. superfan or a contrarian you are, it’s hard to argue with the prevailing wisdom that Around The Sun is, if not R.E.M.’s absolute nadir, certainly one of their lowest points. You could find it far more interesting or curious than the more exposed material; you could find it to be a great, misunderstood album. But can you realistically make an argument it’s better than any of their classic era albums?
As it turns out, the band members themselves wouldn’t even try to make that argument. Though it was, as most of these things go, partially fueled by the media narrative surrounding Accelerate, it is true that the individual members of R.E.M. had their deep misgivings about Around The Sun, which then occasionally extended back over its two predecessors.
When it came time to promote Accelerate, this was the story. Buck walked around shitting on Around The Sun. Stipe allowed that he loved the songs, but the album wasn’t done correctly. (I’m tempted to side with him — Around The Sun mostly suffers from feeling too staid.) As Stipe told Pitchfork near Accelerate’s 2008 release: “What it was, really, was the band realizing that somewhere in the past couple of records, in the past 10 years, we had figured out how to completely lose focus in the studio — with no one to blame but ourselves.”
It comes across as a mixture of R.E.M. having learned some lessons from their years as a trio, and the band having internalized the narrative that had percolated around the post-Berry years and about Around The Sun in particular. In between Around The Sun and Accelerate, R.E.M. took the longest gap of their career. Like they knew they had to really get it right, change course. So when they did resurface with new music four years later, there was a tone to the material and a tone to how it was discussed: R.E.M. were back. This was the band you remembered.
One of the reasons the initial post-Berry albums can feel so different is that it’s not just that R.E.M. were changing stylistically — their melodic sense was different. The core elements you would associate with them — a Stipe chorus, Mills’ background vocals and bass parts taking the lead, Buck’s cascading arpeggios — evolved but were still present on albums like New Adventures In Hi-Fi. By albums like Up, Reveal, and Around The Sun, the songwriting itself felt altered on a fundamental level.
Accelerate promised to reverse all of that. It re-embraced a kind of rock directness. Though often positioned as a “back to basics” outing, it wasn’t quite that. It had the breakneck speed and punchiness of their earliest days and the muscle of Life’s Rich Pageant dressed up with the modern rock crunch of Monster and New Adventures. On some levels, it feels like a parallel to what their peers in U2 did with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind: It’s the album where they “go back to their roots” but effectively sound like an idea of those roots, of themselves. It doesn’t sound exactly like any early R.E.M. album but it “sounds like R.E.M.” They were still young-ish as people, but artists who had hit legacy status, with multiple classic albums casting long shadows that all of their new music had to operate in relation to.
As a lead single, “Supernatural Superserious” functioned as a fitting manifesto for the intended departure and reclamation of Accelerate. There was Mills’ voice once more, there was Buck dancing between gleaming arpeggios and emphatic riffs, there was Stipe delivering a handful of quintessentially Stipe melodies. And if that song worked for you, if it assuaged fears that R.E.M. had gone completely out to sea, then the rest of the album likely scratched the same itch.
The rush of “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” and “Horse To Water” effectively revived the vigor of R.E.M.’s youth. The ruminative folk of “Until The Day Is Done” recalled Automatic For The People and facets of Out Of Time. Then there was the silly but lovable “I’m Gonna DJ,” a cheeky and memorable track that served as the perfect closer to an album that appeared to also want to remind you that R.E.M. could be fun. Even if you were a fan of the experimental phase that preceded Accelerate, it was hard to argue with these songs in 2008. R.E.M. sounded awake, fired-up. This sounded right.
This is still R.E.M. we’re talking about, so it’s not as if Accelerate, even now, registers as the kind of limp meat-and-potatoes rock that typically happens when an aging band “goes back to their roots.” These were art-rock kids with smart pop sensibilities, and there are subtleties on several Accelerate songs that make them stick in your head even 10 years later. There was (the again Automatic-style) folk-rock of “Houston” attacking itself from within with seasick lurches of distorted organ before it broke into its plaintive, lilting chorus. There were the descending synth notes of “Mr. Richards” luring you into its sudden, propulsive beat change in the chorus, coming together in a song that infectiously, ruthlessly pulls you along in its currents. There was the outro of the title track, in which the song finally felt as if it was about to spiral out of control as guitar parts and vocals piled up on one another, emphasizing the wild-eyed anxiety of the times that the song captured.
It wasn’t just that R.E.M. came across as revitalized thanks to how the album moved, furiously and through a relentless succession of hooks. R.E.M. had historically always been known as a deeply politically-engaged band. And yet, during the dire times of the Bush’s presidency, their music hadn’t quite grappled with the climate in the way you might expect. The beauty of Reveal or Around The Sun — lush and restrained, respectively — didn’t match the world outside. That, too, changed with Accelerate: The image of a band rediscovering themselves was amplified by the perception that R.E.M. had also reclaimed their voice at the depleted conclusion of Bush’s tenure.
“Mr. Richards” was a composite portrait of figures in the Bush administration, “Houston” addressed the fallout of Hurricane Katrina, and “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” reacted to the culture of media saturation and talking heads. There were topical songs across Accelerate, but it was also an album whose whole mood took place in that moment in America. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Stipe dug into some of the specifics of his political outlook at the time, including voicing his support for the then-ascendant Barack Obama. “He represents I think the true spirit of the beginning of the 21st century,” he said.
Of course, there was another way in which Accelerate found Stipe trying to wrap his head around the beginning of the 21st century. The name of the album might seem a pithy signifier of R.E.M.’s musical goals this time around, but it was actually a reference to the timbre of the decade, the feeling that life was getting faster and faster exponentially, that we could be tumbling towards disaster unaware of how radically our minds and society were being reshaped at their core. This is, unfortunately, another way in which Accelerate feels like a harbinger in hindsight. At the time, it was a pissed-off but also celebratory document — the Bush years were ending, and hope was around the corner.
Now, 10 years later, the political battles Stipe then lamented were moving too slowly have gotten even worse, despite the progresses made in the interim. Here’s something else he said in that Huffington Post interview: “Looking back, I feel like we’ve all had enough of the fear and the arrogance, and losing our place in the world. Our very big idea of a country and democracy has been brought to a near end by very small people.” We’re right back at that place — Stipe could’ve said that same thing yesterday, and it would’ve resonated perhaps even stronger than it did in 2008. He could write another song about the media news cycle and its corrosive ramifications. It makes you wonder what he might give us today. If, rather than an Instagram post with a quick synth-sketch snippet in support of the March For Our Lives, R.E.M. were still active and continuing to document the state of the country.
That is, of course, not how it happened. For R.E.M., the revival of Accelerate worked. But that also contributed to convincing them to hang it up. “We needed to prove, not only to our fans but to ourselves, that we could still make great records,” Mills told Rolling Stone in an exit interview around R.E.M.’s 2011 breakup. “And we made two. We thought, ‘We’ve done it. Now let’s do something no other band has done: Shake hands and walk away as friends.'”
The prospect of R.E.M. breaking up went much further back, to when Berry left but made them promise to continue on without him. There were moments of tension throughout the ensuing years. There must’ve been, one would imagine, a feeling of some defeat after Around The Sun capped a complicated six year run of releases for the band. That’s how the story often goes: A band runs aground, realizes things aren’t working, and the rest falls apart. What remains is a robust catalog, with that one bum note at the end, that lingering feeling that things were left unfinished, unfixed.
R.E.M. were always more self-aware and conscious than that. Accelerate would function as a reset button, locking the band back into focus and allowing them to make their 2011 swansong Collapse Into Now. Where you can trace much of Accelerate to R.E.M.’s earlier days, Collapse Into Now worked as a better final word: Song for song, you can essentially see each individual composition there as a reflection of a specific album or era in R.E.M.’s career. It wasn’t talked about as such until after the fact, but it was littered with hints that the band was about to say goodbye.
Conversations about calling it a day arose once more, and more seriously, during that 2008 tour. It would turn out to be their last; the band released Collapse Into Now and never performed it on the road. If you’re to read into Mills’ quote, the band had achieved what they set out to do. They didn’t want to leave that catalog with unfinished business. They wanted to right the narrative — and once they had, their work was done.
Looking back at Accelerate 10 years later, it’s hard to divorce it from all that context. How does it hold up on its own? Well, each and every R.E.M. album has greatness in its own way, but Accelerate can’t contend with their classic era releases, naturally. It might not even contend with the more challenging, searching albums that preceded it; and in a lot of ways, it’s a solid “return to form” type moment that efficiently set the stage for R.E.M.’s superior epilogue three years later.
It’s comforting, yet bittersweet, to listen to it now: To remember that feeling at the time, of R.E.M. knowingly kick-starting their own resurrection while also planning their exit. It’s the beginning of the end, but it also underlines why they’re one of the greats. Plenty of bands fade away, lose the spark and dissipate. Give up. But R.E.M. weren’t going to let it end that way. They had to let themselves and everyone else know: For a little while longer at least, they had something to say.