Saturday, May 31, 2008

I Saw The Future Turned Upside-Down, And Hesitated

Wow... I think it has now been a solid decade since I decided that R.E.M. was my favorite band. If asked today to name my favorite band, I will hem and haw, then spit out a half-dozen names, with R.E.M. at the head of the list. I don't know whether that is indicative of loyalty or laziness. Regardless, while my tastes have expanded over the years (most notably getting on a huge electronic music kick that I'm still following through on), the formative influence that this Southern band held on me sets a high barrier for any other band to overcome.

They recently released Accelerate, which is their (consulting Wikipedia...) fourteenth album. That's a pretty amazing run, don't you think? They've been making music together for over twenty-five years now, still playing to sold-out stadiums and releasing challenging new music.

Before I get in trouble, I should be clear: The Beatles are a better band than R.E.M. That said, even The Beatles only lasted for a decade, and I think it's a huge testimony to R.E.M.'s tenacity and work ethic that they have hung together and kept evolving their music.

The purpose of this post is to share my thoughts on Accelerate. I have to admit that, unlike Reveal and Around the Sun, I did not buy this one as soon as it became available. Now that I have it, though, I've been hitting it pretty hard. It will take a while for me to come to final decisions, but after several listens I'm prepared to call it "a very good album", and would probably place it in the top half of their canon. Among the post-Berry albums, I'd put it in the middle: Above ATS but below Reveal.

It seems like for every album since New Adventures in Hi-Fi the pre-release buzz has been, "Oh, this is the album where they go back to using a lot of guitars!" With this album it's actually true. It kicks off with a bang, and they follow the driving force of Buck's guitars on the bulk of the songs here. I think that the track "Accelerate" in particular is some of Buck's finest guitar work ever.

That said, this album is definitely an evolution of their sound, not a reversion to their earlier, Document-era work. The electronic experimentation of recent albums is not as evident here, but they have earned the right to use these techniques, which are woven into the soundscape. I got a particular kick out of listening to "Sing For The Submarine" and thinking, "Oh, this sounds a little like Radiohead!" Which is brilliant, since Radiohead was probably more influenced by R.E.M. than any other band. Both bands are mature and incredibly talented, so it feels like an homage or a friendly nod. And after they channel Thom Yorke through the middle part of the song, they break back into a classic Peter Buck riff, and wind up with the same noisy denouement that they have been doing since Murmur.

Aw, heck... I want to talk a little about each track, so let's do that now.

  1. Living Well Is The Best Defense. One of my favorite tracks on the album, and it would make a great single. The energy is great, and the lyrics are surprisingly accessible.
  2. Man-Sized Wreath. A fine, Document-esque shout at the world. R.E.M. has always been political, but the degree expressed in their music waxes and wanes over the years. This song has them rolling their sleeves up once again to take on Bush, war, the media, and... well, the same things they were complaining about in Document, really.
  3. Supernatural Superserious. Their first single... and, given the reception of their recent albums, probably the only single this album will get. Which is a shame: the song is good, but far from the best on offer. The lyrics kind of annoy me, but the music is excellent, a perfect combination of the old and the new: Buck shimmies on the guitar and Mills backs vocals, while the optimism and fuzz are very much part of the 21st century R.E.M.
  4. Hollow Man. An interesting little segue of a song, starting calm but building up into a pleasant little rocker.
  5. Houston. I really like this one. The paranoid lyrics grab your attention from the very start, and the tune is simultaneously catchy and strange. It carries some of the Southern mysticism that you can detect in Life's Rich Pageant. I really wanted this to be longer.
  6. Accelerate. Another of my favorite songs on the album. The energy in this track is unbelievable, the guitarwork inventive, the singing insistent and delightfully vague.
  7. Until The Day Is Done. Probably the prettiest singing on the album. This captures the small-chamber aspect that R.E.M. occasionally puts on display, and does it really well... it's quiet and accomplished, finely crafted music.
  8. Mr. Richards. My least favorite song in Accelerate. Amusingly, this means I've listened to this one more than any other, as I try to understand why I dislike it so much. I think the song should either be about 25% faster, or else they should have ditched the guitar altogether... either done it acoustic, or done something with the horns they drop in at the end. The tone is making promises that the song doesn't deliver on, making listening a frustrating experience... it's constantly on the verge of being a fun song but never makes it.
  9. Sing For The Submarine. I want everyone who complained about New Adventures in Hi-Fi to listen to this: it is an amazing, atmospheric, dark, and very cool song that they could never have made without the experimentation in that earlier album. As I mentioned above, this is also cool in that they have a Kid A-esque breakout in the middle, sandwiched between an opening reminiscent of recent R.E.M. and a closure that hearkens back to the earlier years.
  10. Horse to Water. R.E.M. doesn't just make great music; they have also become master craftsmen when it comes to constructing the flow of an album. Sing For The Submarine is the last great song on the album, but it would end on a bad note. Horse to Water lets you center yourself and smile as the band gently pokes fun at themselves. It's a return to the fun, high-energy sound that has dominated Accelerate. "I might've kept my mouth shut," Stipe sings at one point, and I can imagine him thinking about this everytime he goes back into the studio. He doesn't have anything left to prove, he's just in it for the love of making music now.
  11. I'm Gonna DJ. I think that this song will probably be the most controversial on the album. Your reaction to it will probably be the same as your reaction to The Outsiders on Around The Sun: Either it is an embarrassing attempt for the band to work with another genre; or else it is an interesting injection of decidedly non-R.E.M. influence that sets up a unique chemical reaction you won't ever see again. I lean towards the latter explanation.
Also, I love the funny yet defiant way that Stipe repeatedly sings "I'm not gonna go 'till I'm good and ready!" throughout the last song. Thank goodness for that! If history is any indication, he could very well be making great music for years to come, and I hope I can keep up with him and the rest of the band. Rock on!

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