First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2011, Volume 18, #1
Written by John Metzger
Thu January 27, 2011, 06:30 AM CST
For all of its towering achievements, R.E.M. has had a rather spotty career of late; one that has been filled with an abundance of fits and starts. Of course, every band that manages to achieve some semblance of durability inevitably struggles to find ways of making its material sound fresh. Yet, in spite of the bold experimentation it brought to Up, R.E.M. has had a difficult time moving past its blockbuster endeavors from the early 1990s (Out of Time and Automatic for the People) as well as the remarkably consistent string of college-rock favorites from the 1980s (Murmur, Lifeís Rich Pageant, and Reckoning, among them). Issued in 1994, Monster, in particular, was a failed attempt by R.E.M. to recapture the glory days of its youth, while Reveal was a solid, if uneventful affair that reflected just how stagnantly uncertain the group had become.
Regardless, veteran outfits can never be disregarded entirely, especially when their backs are pressed against the wall. Although its successes were overlooked by fans and critics alike, Around the Sun arguably was R.E.M.ís first step back from the brink. If anything, the outright dismissal of the effort further strengthened the bandís resolve in a fashion that just might have salvaged the long-term prospects of its survival. Bolstered by a campaign to repackage its catalogue as well as a compilation of material culled from its early records (And I Feel Fine...The Best of the I.R.S. Years), R.E.M. hit the road with a vengeance. In the process, the outfit not only scored some of the best concert reviews of its career, but it also rediscovered the ferocity and passion that once drove its performances ó on stage and in the studio.
At the time of its release, R.E.M.ís 2008 endeavor Accelerate was a stunning return to form. Nevertheless, when it is viewed with hindsight, the ferociousness of the set becomes less surprising. Designed to wipe the slate clean and reconnect R.E.M. to its gritty roots, the collection largely follows the blueprint that R.E.M. had sculpted for Monster. Fortunately, by using its touring line-up ó which includes guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin ó all of the problems that plagued the latter album were eliminated from the framework of Accelerate. It helped considerably that the bandís members were in a better state of mind as they pieced together the affair. While Monster was weighed down by the tension that pervaded R.E.M.ís camp ó to the point where the outing frequently felt labored ó Accelerate sounds fully liberated and free. Front man Michael Stipeís lyrics ring with importance, but the outfit as a whole seems to have found a way to have fun again.
At first glance, Accelerate is filled with hard-hitting anthems. The arrangements are big and boisterous, more fitting of R.E.M.ís recent concerts than its studio sets. As such, the songs contain propellent rhythms that pound relentlessly beneath the fray of rampaging guitars that chime, jangle, and bite. It would be easy to mistake cuts like the title track and Supernatural Superserious for outtakes from the bandís early forays. Likewise, the Beatle-esque currents that ripple through Man-Sized Wreath and Mr. Richards would fit neatly alongside the material from Green. For certain, there is a punk-fueled intensity that pervades the endeavor, one that long has been absent from R.E.M.ís studio work.
Upon further examination, however, it is clear that at least a few vestiges of R.E.M.ís recent projects remain. Instead of serving collectively as the driving force, they are woven subtly into the fabric of the endeavor, obscured not only by the groupís engaging melodies but also by its impassioned performance. Similarly, the bandís lyrics continue to reflect upon themes of politics and survival. Hoping to build upon its forward progress, R.E.M. reconnected with producer Jacknife Lee for help on its forthcoming set Collapse into Now. The stakes undoubtedly are higher this time, but as long as the outfit keeps its experimental tendencies in check and maintains the concision of Accelerate, R.E.M. likely will extend its trend of reacquiring the fans that had strayed in the wake of Bill Berryís departure.
Of Further Interest...
Accelerate is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2011 The Music Box