When R.E.M. first burst on the national scene in the early '80s with Murmur and Reckoning, their first two albums, it was like magic. Perhaps they were just in the right place at the right time — but they filled a void in a post-punk world, giving modern rock 'n' roll the jump it needed, and inventing the indie/college rock scene in the process.
It's hard to know exactly where R.E.M. lost the plot — I'd argue at least since they left I.R.S. in 1988 for Warner Bros. — but they've grown tired and boring over the years, to the point that their legacy isn't anywhere near that of, say, the Replacements (who were kinda thought of as R.E.M.'s "little brother" band then). Despite major hit singles during the post-I.R.S. years, nothing came close to matching those enchanting early I.R.S. years. Part of the problem began, I'd argue, when the listener could actually understand singer Michael Stipe's lyrics (you couldn't on those first two albums). Guitarist Peter Buck told me years ago that those indecipherable lyrics had "more to do with 'Louie, Louie' than they do with some surrealistic French poet." But once one could understand the words, it seemed Stipe had more in common with pretense than he did with punk — and lyrics to such hits as "Orange Crush" and "Stand" weren't just grating, they were embarrassing.
The band has become like the Rolling Stones in the sense that each new album has critics proclaiming it's their best since [insert your favorite LP here]. But this time, the critics are correct. This is a terrific comeback — and the title is perfect.
Buck accelerates the music with his stinging guitar attack on the opener, "Living Well is the Best Revenge." Another monster, "Man-Sized Wreath," immediately follows, featuring Beach Boys-like backing vocals (courtesy of Mike Mills) and the best pop hook they've come up with since "Harborcoat." The entire album overflows with hooks, in fact. "Supernatural Superserious," the first single, is reminiscent of some of the more interesting later hit singles, hook-wise, but is much better. The title track has elements of "Pretty Persuasion," while "Mr. Richards" is a superb psychedelic raga thang that'd do the Beatles and Byrds proud. And they manage to channel punk, full throttle, on such tracks as the closing "I'm Gonna DJ."
Even Stipe's intelligible lyrics have much to recommend them here, as he reflects on a country in ruins. He says as much ("The verdict is dire/ The country's in ruins") on "Until the Day Is Done," which also states, "The battle's been lost/The war is not won." The ignoramus "Mr. Richards" could possibly be Mr. Bush himself. "Houston," meanwhile, is about the devastating hurricane floods that nearly destroyed New Orleans ("If the storm doesn't kill me/The government will"). But they end the LP with the hopeful proclamation "Music will provide the light," as though they believe it.
Part of the problem with CDs has been they're mostly too long, with too much filler. But Accelerate clocks in just short of 34 minutes and, with the arguable exception of the maudlin "Sing for the Submarine," there isn't a bum moment. The album may not be on quite the same level as the band's first two discs, but it's certainly their best since Bill Berry left back in 1997.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].