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Album review: R.E.M., “Accelerate” (Warner Bros.) [3 STARS]

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This hasn’t been an easy decade for fans of R.E.M. The favorite sons of Athens, Ga., haven’t made a beginning-to-end great album since “Automatic for the People” in 1992. Even guitarist Peter Buck now admits the band has been on a “downward slide.”

Mind you, that hasn’t stopped the musicians, their long-time record label or their tireless boosters from hailing every new release as the one that recaptures former glories or “the record where R.E.M. rocks again.” And so goes the corporate line on “Accelerate,” the band’s 14th studio album, which arrives in stores on Tuesday.

We’ve heard this before -- with “Monster” (1994), with “Up” (1998) and even with the dreadfully dull “Around the Sun” four years ago. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t entirely true now. But “Accelerate” is at least the band’s most consistent and focused effort in 16 years, and with 11 songs breezing by in a little more than half an hour, it also has the healthiest pulse.

It’s only fair to compare R.E.M. to U2, the other guitar-driven, politically active and wonderfully rousing quartet that bridged the gap between the indie-rock ’80s and the alternative explosion of the ’90s, and the other peer band that made the leap from the college circuit to the arena -- though U2 were always better suited to the latter.

With a producer recommended by Bono --Jacknife Lee, whose previous credits include Snow Patrol and Bloc Party -- “Accelerate” was largely recorded in Dublin, home base for you-guessed-it, and Mr. Hewson and his mates apparently cheered their American cousins’ progress. If we ride this riff to its logical conclusion, “Accelerate” is supposed to be R.E.M.’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” But if you’re a fan of both bands at their best, that isn’t a compliment.

Yes, singer Michael Stipe (48), bassist/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills (49) and Buck (51) are cheerfully hearkening back to the more rollicking sounds of their youth, circa, say, “Reckoning” (1984) or “Green” (1988). In case anyone misses the “reclaiming our history” angle, Stipe even sprinkles references to earlier lyrics and song titles through the new “Sing for the Submarine.” (“It’s for you electron blue… Lift up your voice, feel gravity’s pull.”) But in reaching back, the band is only coming up with generic echoes of its finest work. Something important is missing.

The harder-rocking moments of “Accelerate” went down pretty well when R.E.M. performed at South by Southwest a few weeks ago. The rollicking “Living Well’s the Best Revenge” and “Mansized Wreath,” the ode to teenage geekdom and first single “Supernatural Superserious” and the angry, vaguely political barn-burners “Mr. Richards” and “Horse to Water” were appealing enough as they sped by -- nothing new, but as worthy as any of the outtakes compiled on an odds ’n’ sods collection such as “Dead Letter Office.” But then, midway through the set, the band rolled into “Fall on Me,” and the shortcomings of its new material became apparent.

A tune from “Lifes Rich Pageant” (1986) about acid rain in particular and oppression in general, “Fall on Me” has an engaging ambiguity and a gripping emotional heft that the new tracks lack. And just as sorely missed are Bill Berry’s distinctive tom-heavy drum patterns and the layered harmonies and counter-melodies that he and Mills once added to the mix, and which were always as important as Stipe’s lead vocals.

Just think of how great that “All you sad and lost apostles/Hum my name and flare their nostrils” line from “Living Well’s the Best Revenge” would have sounded with the old trio vocals instead of the now-prominent Stipe lead and buried Mills backing. It surely is no exaggeration to say that Berry’s departure was an even greater blow to R.E.M. than the deaths of Keith Moon and John Bonham were to the Who and Led Zeppelin; the latter were merely phenomenal drummers, while Berry was that as well as an astounding singer and songwriter.

No, I don’t expect R.E.M. to live in the past, even when that past was as extraordinary as the 11-year run from “Chronic Town” to “Automatic for the People.” Asked by Pitchfork whether “Accelerate” was a conscious return to “classic R.E.M.,” Buck reportedly cringed and replied, “You try to avoid repetition. I could probably rewrite ‘Murmur’ every day, and that would be a little less than interesting.”

Sorry, Peter, but I don’t buy it. When fans say they long for a return to the R.E.M. of old, they’re missing the magical band camaraderie and the mysterious but undeniable poignancy of the old songs, not the particular chord patterns, jangling guitars or mumbled vocals. If R.E.M. really could write another “Murmur” or “Automatic for the People” whenever it wanted, I wish for once it would.

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A very objective review of the R.E.M. CD. Some of their magic has returned. I'm very curious about your possible upcoming review of Moby's new CD.

You are always hitting it on the head, Jim. I long for those darker and more interesting days of Chronic Town and Murmer too. I long for those days of living in a dorm and feeling so darn obsessed with the mystery of those hardly understandable lyrics and feeling like I'm the only person here who gets it, listening to Reckoning at two am after a hardcore show in my dorm room while my room mate complains about the volume of my headphones. I give it to them for trying, particularly Peter Buck. They are not the Beatles (no one is and ever will)Thank goodness they didn't ever become as self righteous as those bands they are constantly mentioned with as contemporaries, U2, Radiohead REM do what they want.That is to rock, at least recently. I admire them for continuing to be a band at least. Hey, c'mon they tried to be innovative and recently realized what folks like me want from them. Bless them for trying to be hip and up to date. They won't be and that is part of the charm that aging hipsters like me can appreciate. Disclaimer, I like Radiohead but U2 never did it for me. Where's the Howard Finster for the new kids?

In 2004 you called "Around the Sun" the band's "best new album since the early 90s." Now it's "dreadfully dull"?

Your review is fair, and mostly accurate. I completely agree Bill's departure was catastrophic. (In fact, if it's really true the only reason he left is because he doesn't want to live the touring life of a musician, I wish he'd make like Brian Wilson and just show up when it comes time to write and record in the studio.) But I think you've sprinkled references to the poignancy of early period songs a little unfairly. They were as compelling as you describe them, but not all of their value was inherent to the music alone. It was a culture of going it alone and against the grain that merged a certain zeitgeist into their tunes. The one reference you made to that -- about the band's camaraderie back in the day, is actually somewhat inaccurate. Stipe and Mills in particular were like warring factions for the better part of the 80s, and the band nearly split up many times. At the very core, they've got intact what almost no other acts can claim: they've never made an album or penned a type of song because someone else wanted them to, and they've rarely covered the same musical ground twice. They do their own thing and you tune in for the parts you like. That's what they'll be remembered for. That, and their 15th studio album, which will sell 22 million copies!

Hey Jim!

That article was spot on! I have been an rem fan for several decades and I think the departure of Bill Berry is a loss the band has still not found a way to overcome. He may not have been the most "technical" or astonishing drummer but I think he rounded them out in some intangible ways that were vital to what makes them special. I haven't heard the record yet but I would be surprised if it left me feeling like that got their mojo back.

Taylor Short
Charlotte, NC

It's good to see all the REM talk...the more REM, the better. I'm a fan since popping the Murmur vinyl on my college dorm turntable in 1983. Chronic Town through Fables are as good as it gets, and their ouput since then is still better than most. I've often wondered, are they the Best (or Most Important?) American band ever? A case could be made for the Beach Boys I'm sure. When you factor in longevity it's hard to argue against REM. Even the Beatles were around only a few years, and the Stones and Who haven't had any new material worth anything in nearly 30 years (to compare to some English counterparts).

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on March 26, 2008 8:24 AM.

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