R.E.M. Accelerate(Warner Bros.) Buy it from Insound
In polite, or hip company, there’s no right way to ask the question: “have you heard the new R.E.M album?” It’s a question that implies the answer in the combination of the words themselves and the target to whom they are being asked. The response is, more often than not, a pitying shake of the head, a swift, gentle dismissal of the band that have arguably shaped the path of modern, mainstream alternative rock than any other.
Not that R.E.M necessarily deserve unfainting, unreserved praise. They’d be the first to admit that their last album, 2004’s post-9/11 hotchpotch Around The Sun was far from perfect – while the likes of Leaving New York and The Ascent Of Man saved it from complete disaster, the lacklustre production and overall weariness of the band shone through everything like a dirty lightbulb under a clean lampshade.
Watching the decline of R.E.M from potential World’s Biggest Band to the indie equivalent of the Rolling Stones over the last decade has been one of the more upsetting spectacles of modern music. This is the band that defined a generation in the early 80s, whose articulation and musical literacy combined to stunning effect from Murmur, the band’s first full-length in 1983 right through to 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-fi. Certainly, parts of their career have divided critics: Green provoked sell-out accusations, Monster was written off as a weak attempt to emulate their grunge peers. But up until New Adventures…, R.E.M were producing challenging, dense, yet accessible music. And although Up and Reveal both showed potential, they were flawed, weak by the band’s own high standards, and couldn’t rescue them from slipping into obscurity. Founding member Bill Berry’s yoghurt/aeroplane-facilitated departure did nothing to strengthen and so R.E.M find themselves fighting an uphill battle.
So, 2007, enter Jacknife Lee, fresh from producing indie upstarts such as Editors and Bloc Party, and a rejuvenated Stipe, Mills and Buck enter the studio. The resultant efforts have seen the light as Accelerate and as is de rigueur in a situation such as this, it’s being described as their big comeback.
The first thing you’ll notice after a listen through is that ‘big’ is both appropriate and not. For while this is a big-sounding record in terms of whacking great guitars and soaring strings, it’s actually very small – 10 tracks crammed into 35 minutes. It kicks off with Living Well Is The Best Revenge and immediately sets out its stall: this is a rock album, R.E.M are back being literate and smart, Stipe is barking out lyrics like it’s 1987… in fact, beef up some songs off Document and you could mix the two albums up.
And that’s a little bit of a problem. R.E.M are not young – the band are approaching 50 but are trying simultaneously to recapture their own youth and muscle in on others’, and it doesn’t really wash. It’s when R.E.M act a little more mature (Hollow Man, Until The Day Is Done) that they’re most successful – at times (I’m Gonna DJ), it’s just downright embarrassing. There is something to be said for growing old gracefully, it appears.
However, to focus on the positives: where they hit the right note (such as on those more adult numbers, or the grindy, sharp Mr Richards) then Accelerate feels like a really excellent R.E.M album. They’re still fiercely intelligent songs, and the energy is back in the music after the long-day-at-work feel of the last few year’s – even the songs where the band sound like they’re 50 going on 18 have a bit of zip about them.
They might not break your heart these days, and they might not have the same clout, but R.E.M are at least heading in the right direction, and that’s definitely a good thing.