R.E.M. – “Accelerate” (2008)

November 18, 2008 at 6:44 am (David Fricke, Reviews & Articles)

David Fricke’s take on the brilliant recent R.E.M. album – Rolling Stone (issue #1049), April 3, 2008…

 

When their original drummer, Bill Berry, quit in 1997, R.E.M. became more than “a three-legged dog,” as singer Michael Stipe famously put it at the time. Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills actually turned into a pair of trios, two very different bands, for the next ten years. One was the studio R.E.M. of Up, Reveal and Around the Sun: wounded but determined, making a stately, reflective pop rich in psychedelic luster and heavy with ballads about faith and doubt. Then there was the concert R.E.M. Armed with longtime second guitarist Scott McCaughey and, in recent years, ex-Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin, Stipe, Buck and Mills charged the musical exploration and internal debate on those records with the dirty-silver jangle and get-in-the-van surge of R.E.M.’s quartet-era classics, such as 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant and 1987’s Document.

Accelerate is the first studio album by that post-Berry stage band, and it is one of the best records R.E.M. have ever made. Much of Accelerate was cut in live-band takes and even tested onstage during a run in Dublin last summer, and it shows. Guitars are front and center, in slashing-chord and rusted-arpeggio crossfires, as if you’ve got R.E.M.’s 1982 EP Chronic Town and the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks spinning in your CD tray at the same time. “Man-Sized Wreath,” “Supernatural Superserious” and “Horse to Water” rattle and zoom like buried treasures from an old club-tour set list. And there is nothing soft or shy about the slower darkness either. In “Houston,” a stark snapshot of post-Katrina exile (“If the storm doesn’t kill me/The government will”), crude fuzz drones and ham-fisted organ chords roll over Buck’s acoustic guitar and the fighter’s will in Stipe’s voice (“I was taught to hold my head high. . . . Make the best of what today has”) like oily floodwater.

But the R.E.M. on Accelerate is also the one I saw at New York’s Madison Square Garden right after 2004’s Vote for Change Tour — and two nights after Bush’s re-election. Bummed but unbowed, they opened the show with loud, fast defiance — “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” — and they do the same thing here, with “Living Well Is the Best Revenge.” “Don’t turn your talking points on me/History will set me free/The future is ours, and you don’t even rate a footnote,” Stipe sings in a rapid, ecstatic near-shout over flying fists of guitar and racing bass and drums. And that’s just the start of the blowback. “Nature abhors a vacuum/But what’s between your ears?” he snaps in “Man-Sized Wreath,” a bitter laugh at empty pomp and sound-bite patriotism, aimed at sheep and herders alike. And whoever “Mr. Richards” is, he gets his just desserts — “Mr. Richards, your conviction/Had us cheering in the kitchen” — served with Buck and McCaughey’s bristling-glam guitars.

Stipe has not sounded this viscerally engaged in his singing and poetically lethal in his writing since the twilight of the Reagan administration. But he is not merely protesting the mess of the nation. Accelerate is total-victory rock, Stipe making promises he knows he can keep — “You weakened shill . . . Savor your dying breath” (“Living Well”) — because he’s not alone. The apocalypse is obvious in “Sing for the Submarine,” an urban-holocaust update of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s hippie-escape plan “Wooden Ships.” So is the strength in numbers. “It’s all a lot less frightening/Than we would’ve had it be,” Stipe insists, as Mills swoops way behind him in guardian-angel harmony. (Mills’ vocals, too often taken for granted, are frequent literal high points on the album, the reassuring sunlight on Stipe’s gritty delivery.) And in “Hollow Man,” Stipe concedes his own needs and fuck-ups, then calls for help — “Corner me and make me something” — in a stunning mix of tender-piano ballad and big-guitar chorus that sums up the commitment that makes true loves, democracies and great rock bands possible.

Ultimately, the best thing about Accelerate is that R.E.M. sound whole again, no longer three-legged but complete in their bond and purpose. “Music will provide the light you cannot resist,” Stipe crows at the end of the record, in the atomic frivolity of “I’m Gonna DJ.” And you can believe him — because he and his band believe in themselves again.  

 

David Fricke

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