You know what it’s like after a painful breakup? How you just can’t bring yourself to go to those old special places? Sometimes sitting in that restaurant, seeing those movies or hearing those songs that she loved just cuts you to the quick. So, you go out of your way not to experience these things again. You sell back the CDs that you wouldn’t listen to without her. You avoid going to parties where her friends might show up. You tend to avoid conversations that could end up reminding you of your time together. In other words, you’ve changed. You’re not the carefree, freewheeling, super fun dude you used to be, like Bob Dylan on the cover featuring the adjective above. Instead, you become the careful, sad and somewhat dejected Dylan you see on the cover of, well, most of those albums where he looks sad and dejected. In a way, this is exactly what happened when Bill Berry left R.E.M. in 1997. Confused and at a loss for what to do next, the band continued on at Berry’s urging, like an ex telling you to `get out there and find someone that makes you happy.’ A friend of mine once told me that it takes as many years to get over an ex as the years you were together. R.E.M. recovered a bit quicker than that, but it has taken eleven long years for them to fall back into love with the true sound of R.E.M.
Like LL Cool J and a rephrased comment from the Stephen Colbert interview, R.E.M. won’t have you calling this a comeback, they’ve been here for years. However, even members of the band are willing to admit that the last few efforts haven’t been their best. So, they did what they could to regain the magic that once defined one of the best bands in the world. For one, they took the advice of the Edge and recruited Jacknife Lee to produce. Sure, with Snow Patrol, Editors and Bloc Party under the belt it might be difficult to peg them with R.E.M., but he also helped orchestrate U2’s return to rock glory with How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Secondly, they purposefully decided to play louder and faster, with Peter Buck and Mike Mills laying down the music tracks before giving Michael Stipe a very short window in which to write lyrics. There are those that work well under pressure, and Stipe seems to be one of them. They tested the songs on audiences in Dublin (more of U2’s urging?) before settling on a few to record for the next album, and then recorded some of them in the place where it all began, Athens, Ga. And so, eleven years parting ways with Bill Berry, R.E.M. were finally able to move on, visiting the old haunts and even recall those days of old fondly, without breaking down.
The first thing you hear in the opening track, “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” is a charging riff by Peter Buck, and in an instant, you know that R.E.M. is back in the house. Michael Stipe’s Document-era lightning fast sing/talk delivery only seals the deal. The equally politically charged “Man-Sized Wreath” is easily one of the best R.E.M. songs I’ve heard in quite some time. I mentioned in my review of Around the Sun that what seemed missing were two specific things, Peter Buck’s signature guitar lines and Mike Mills’ exquisite backup vocals. Well, message received as both are in abundance on Accelerate, both at their wonderful best in debut single “Supernatural Superserious.” And just when you start having your biggest doubts, when you think that three songs might be all they could muster, they come at you with “Hollow Man” and then “Houston.” The latter is stunning. It’s pure Automatic for the People dark harmonies and gothic overtones. I just wonder whether they supplanted `Austin’ in the lyrics when they played SXSW.
The chorus of the title track is somewhat reminiscent of the first half of one of my favorite R.E.M. albums, Life’s Rich Pageant, while “Until the Day Is Done” mines the second half with a likeness toward the fan favorite “Swan Swan H.” And although Peter Buck claimed this album was a -3 on the mandolin scale, the delicate guitars almost resemble that hallowed instrument from “Losing My Religion.” When the band isn’t getting in touch with some kind of Fountain of Youth musically, they’re doing it lyrically, as when Stipe sings the words “feel gravity’s pull,” “electron blue” and “the world as we know it” in “Sing for the Submarine.” But this really isn’t about a band merely going back to an old, tried and tested formula, like when “New Coke” was finally ditched for “Classic Coke.” Instead, this is about a band regaining their confidence, remembering what it was about rock and roll that got them started in the first place.
That said, the last two tracks could easily be called the best on the album. Stipe’s lyrics on “Horse to Water” can stand up alongside many from the band’s early years where they were more poetic than straightforward, yet still meaning something. “I’m Gonna DJ” somewhat pays homage to their Athens counterparts, the B-52’s, as they find the fun in rock and roll once again. The backup “ooh’s” are what make this song a keeper. And it is really in this song that you realize that R.E.M. has gotten over the `breakup’ that took Bill Berry away from them. In an interview on CBS Sunday Morning, it was mentioned that Michael Stipe couldn’t even bear to look at a photograph hanging on a wall in an Athens restaurant. That picture was the last picture of the band together before the split, and you can see the hurt on Stipe’s face. But time heals all wounds, and after a few stutter steps in a sort of musical rehab, R.E.M. are now back to a full gallop.
Accelerate is, not counting rarity collections or live albums, R.E.M.’s 14th full-length in 25 years. That’s a lot for any band, and especially a lot for any band that began in the attention-deficit riddled ’80s. But, I guess with eight years of Reagan and 12 of the Bushes, it would give any politically minded band a lot to write about. I bought the deluxe version of Accelerate, just as I bought the deluxe version of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. This version comes with a chapbook, loosely tied together with string. Besides the band name and title of the album, the first thing you see on the cover of the book is a statement, “This book will fall apart.” Methinks there’s more meaning in this than just a warning to those who treat their things roughly. Whether counsel from Yeats, Chinua Achebe or Pema Chodron, the message is the same, the center cannot hold. Once, R.E.M. was a solid four-piece that rocked their way to stardom. Then, suddenly, they had to become what Stipe described as a `three-legged dog.’ And, now that they’ve found their way once again, we have to wonder, how long will this last? After the critical disappointment of Around the Sun, both Buck and Stipe agreed that if they made another like it, they’d be done. Thankfully, they rebounded spectacularly. So, we can count on another 25 years, right?
Hüsker Dü- Flip Your Wig
R.E.M.- Automatic for the People
U2- How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
Video: “Supernatural Superserious”