A Getintothis favourite is back, back, back.
Even if REM had produced a good record, disappointment would have been inevitable.
See, REM don’t do good. Up until the release of 2001’s Reveal, REM had delivered a sequence of 11 winning, near faultless, packages of music that made hairs stand on end, eyes narrow with joy while simultaneously filling with tears and limbs shake with uncontrollable glee.
Just to repeat – that’s 11 winners – in footballing terms that’s the point where a team reaches such goal-scoring magnitude the vidiprinter spells out the score in capitals. ELEVEN.
See REM don’t do good. They do great.
That was until Reveal, an album containing classic single Imitation of Life and several other memorable highs yet ultimately weighed down by inconsistency. Then came 2004’s nadir, All Around The Sun. We won’t dwell; it was flat, over-played and redundant in nearly every characteristic flourish associated with the Athens, Georgia beauties.
The common misconception is that it’s all Bill Berry‘s fault for swapping drum kits for hay bales. That’s incorrect, a convenient excuse and completely misrepresents the record which followed immediately after Berry’s departure, Up, which in the decade that’s passed since its release has steadily been reassessed and cemented itself as a firm favourite with many staunch followers of the band.
Around the Sun, was quite simply the sound of REM pondering a little too hard and for once losing their way.
With Accelerate, they’re back. And for any serious fan of the band, the moment which announces REM’s return to greatness arrives barely five minutes in when Mike Mills‘ radiant harmonies are stretched to breaking point as second track Man-Sized Wreath closes in a blitz of glory. It is a truly magnificent moment to hear one of the finest vocal pairings in modern times overlapping amidst Peter Buck‘s twanging Rickenbacker.
The sound is distinctly mid-period REM, ala Document and the masterpiece that is Lifes Rich Pageant; swirling Mills organ (that’s a distinct difference for a kick off – how many times in recent years has REM’s bass-playing secret weapon traded warped organ for trad piano, or even worse soulless deadened synths), crazed crashing chords of discordance from Buck and bin-lid wallops from touring staple Bill Rieflin.
Then there’s Michael Stipe – REM‘s starman – you can almost hear his wiggling arms wafting the air around his mic, his vocals contain just enough of that rough round the edges gruff that add to the lack of clarity and mumbled stream of syllables and sounds. Sure, this is no hark back to the Murmur days where complete jumbled ambiguity served so well, but Man-Sized Wreath, like much of Accelerate, doesn’t make the mistake their last two records did by thrusting his voice to the fore leaving him exposed to the scarcity of tunes while eradicating his enigmatic delivery. Here Stipe’s vocals feel completely inseparable from the ecstatic energy around from one of the tightest units in rock. And that’s only two minutes, thirty three seconds of Accelerate.
And herein lies the key to Accelerate‘s brillance. In what is perhaps the shrewdest manoeuvre the band have pulled off in their 28-year career – the whopping clue is in the record’s title – speed is very much the essence.
Accelerate‘s 11 tracks clock in at whirlwind 34 minutes 39 seconds – by some distance their shortest record to date and a massive 21 minutes less than their previous LP.
And of those 11 tracks, five are just two minutes 39 seconds or less. Prior to this REM have only released five studio album tracks in their entire catalogue under this duration, namely Auctioneer (Another Engine), Underneath the Bunker, Strange and instrumentals New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 and Zither.
See, even if Accelerate is no Automatic, Murmur or even Green, it is a tremendous return to form for sheer fun and heady excitement – and if there’s a dull moment, it is gone in the shake of a tambourine.
That said, you’d be hard pushed to apply dull to any of Accelerate. Opener Living Well Is The Best Revenge is their best opening track since What’s The Frequency Kenneth, and like the Monster lead off single, is a rampaging barnstormer utilising Buck’s grizzly arpeggiated angles while Stipe spits venom at his doubters – ‘All your sad and lost apostles hum my name and flare their nostrils choking on the bones you tossed them.’ It’s an attention-grabbing start, setting the standard and containing a final six seconds of glamtastic riffing.
The pace is nothing but relentless until the daft, brash single Supernatural Superserious subsides – a track which deceptively creeps under the skin and will command much passionate singing from the stands when REM embark on their summer tour of the UK. Again, Mills harmonies are central to the track’s magic.
This no-nonsense approach works well on the spiky title track which contains a malevolent bass rumble that lends comparison to the mood evoked on the troubled atmospherics of Fables of the Reconstruction, as Stipe lays bear his soul, ‘Where is the rip cord, the trap door, the key? … I’ve got to fall in another direction.’
Equally frazzled is Horse To Water which recalls their cover of Wire‘s Strange as featured on Document. If they push this garage template too far it’s on the kiss-off goofball stomp of closing track I’m Gonna DJ, a track so throwaway it’s hard to imagine that this is the same band responsible for such lifeless insipidity as Around The Sun.
But Accelerate isn’t all good times rock & roll, after all this is REM, a band always delivering a message no matter how indecipherable. And it’s precisely these contrasts which make their latest effort so palatable while ensuring a degree of longevity – something you haven’t been able to apply to any REM record since ’96’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi.
Mr Richards is classic swirling REM rock, lambasting the Bush administration while indignantly declaring, ‘You’re mistaken if you think we’ll just forget,’ Until The Day Is Done is a damning wind-swept slice of Americana which could have easily dropped off New Adventures while perhaps the record’s most musically intriguing is Houston; a savage attack on the government in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; a track built on huge, distorted, sludgy guitar lines and a demonic Mills organ riff. You can guarantee it won’t be played live as it’s so unforgiving.
But let’s not get carried away, Accelerate is, and never could be expected to be the equal of Murmur, Automatic or maybe even half their back catalogue. If they’d scaled such heights it would have been nothing short of miraculous considering their recent history.
And almost inevitably there are a few hiccups. The aforementioned I’m Gonna DJ is plain daft, the distinctly average Hollow Man is a bog-standard mid-tempo pop jaunt that finds the band sleep-walking while the record’s longest track, Sing For The Submarine is a cold mesh of tangled guitars and bleak meandering which overstays its welcome – only a hammering mid-section reminiscent of Walk Unafraid saves it from complete tedium.
But these missteps aside, Accelerate is the sound of REM having fun, releasing a record which while not a masterclass is certainly a welcome addition to their peerless collection – and for that it’s great to have them back.
Listen to Accelerate in full here.