The Good: Decent lyrics, Good sound, Decent-enough vocals
The Bad: Mumbling again, SHORT!
The Basics: R.E.M. returns to its musical roots with an instrumentally and vocally simple album that rocks and has (largely) impressive lyrics.
Every time I write a review that seems to fly in the face of public opinion, I get a little edgy. I'm not part of the Hive Mind and I am rather proud of that. Even so, when every major reviewers says that R.E.M.'s latest album, Accelerate is their best album in years and one of their best ever, it sets the bar pretty high. The thing is, those reviewers are right, but I'll be equally right when I add the caveat "what there is of it."
Accelerate is indeed a return to classic R.E.M. form in a way that almost sounds like the group discovered a lost recording from the I.R.S. days, added a few little notes of production polish and put it on the market. This is the precise sound and feel of one of those early R.E.M. albums. Unfortunately for the trio that is now R.E.M., this opens the band up to the same problems they faced on any number of their earliest albums: mumbling through the lyrics, murky lyrics that require Cliff's Notes and references both specific and deeply progressive, almost revolutionary. And while most reviewers might just be happy with what crumbs R.E.M. gives them, I hold them to the same standard on Accelerate that I hold every other album and it's time someone says it: this album is a terrible use of the c.d. medium.
With eleven tracks clocking in at a pathetic 34:14, Accelerate makes poor use of the capacity of a compact disc and its brevity in no way improves the album's repeatability. R.E.M. is made up of three intensely creative, articulate and prolific men and if they can't use at least an hour's worth of the c.d. by this album (which has to be at least their tenth original work!) they ought to get out of the business or hold off releasing until they can fill an album.
That said, Accelerate is distinctly R.E.M. All of the songs are written by the band. As well, the three members of R.E.M. provide the vocals and appear to do all of the instrumentals for the tracks (the liner notes are great this time out for the lyrics, but not crediting the participants. It was, however, co-produced by R.E.M. as well, so it is hard to argue that this album is anything less than R.E.M.'s musical, creative and intellectual vision. And, largely, that is a great accomplishment.
First and foremost, R.E.M. is politically aware, active and awake. This band from Georgia has little qualm about singing directly about the problems with government ("Horse To Water," "Living Well Is The Best Revenge"), paranoia over government control ("Houston"), and the failures of warfare ("Until The Day Is Done"). But it's not all political rhetoric. R.E.M. mixes in universal teenage humiliation ("Supernatural Superserious") and loss ("Hollow Man"). And, if anything, Accelerate leaves the listener eager for more, begging for the album to keep going when it ends after "I'm Gonna DJ."
As with all of the best R.E.M. albums, indeed, all of the best albums with vocals, one of the great strengths of Accelerate is the lyrics. R.E.M. is able to be articulate and they make story-songs out of sweeping political events or political ideas. One might need a guide - especially in coming years - to decipher all of the meaning behind "Mr. Richards." But songs like "Horse To Water" try to make politics an engaging act for the listener with lines like "I could have kept my head down. / I could have kept my mouth shut. / I should have held my own, / You lead a horse to water and you / Watch him drown. / You're only as big as your battles. / Rattle my cage with your shadow / I'm a bantamweight with a / Mouthful of feathers . . ." Clearly R.E.M. has a pretty extensive vocabulary and sense of imagery that most bands either do not possess or do not use.
R.E.M.'s distrust of government makes for surprisingly interesting listening, too. With "Houston," R.E.M. presents a song for Texas that is murky and clever. Opening with the menace of the words "If the storm doesn't kill me, / The government will," "Houston" challenges the listener to stand anyway with the exhortation of ". . . some things they fall to the wayside / Their memories yet to be stilled / Belief has not failed me / And so I am put to the test." It is one thing to sing about the obstacles we face in a free society, it is another to use the medium to demand that the listener fight the challenges and stand regardless of the difficulties.
Unfortunately, even the lyrics on Accelerate are not without some moments that make the listener wonder what the heck the men of R.E.M. were thinking. For a band of such educated and involved individuals, one wonders where they pulled the inane mosh-beat lines of "Throw it in the fire / Throw it in the air / Kick it out on the dance floor / Like you just don't care. / Look at what I found! / Everybody look around / Everybody looking like they just don't care" ("Man-Sized Wreath"). It's like the group said, "we've got all of these smart songs, we need to put something - early on the album - that people can play at keggers." It almost undoes veiled mentions to George W. Bush and the folly of capitalism in "Until The Day Is Done."
But, it's not enough to sink Accelerate. This is a good album. In addition to the decent overall lyrics, the vocals are decent, though Michael Stipe stays safely within his range on all of the tracks. However, he is able to modulate his performance within his range with an actual sense of expression. He sings "Mr. Richards" with a demanding forcefulness that is one of the most consistent command-tense tone of any song I have ever heard. Conversely, "Man-Sized Wreath" is presented with a dance affect that is so poppy and energetic it is easy to get lost in the eager, upbeat fray of the sound of the vocals. In other words, Stipe presents the song in a way that is eager and energetic; he doesn't just sing the lyrics of excitement, he presents the song with that type of energy as well.
Instrumentally, R.E.M. sounds a bit more refined than the drum, guitar, and bass group that they actually are. The songs rock and flow and they generally work well. Accelerate is one of R.E.M.'s most upbeat albums. This album does not have a "Nightswimming" style song. Instead, it is largely all uptempo and intense in that type of energy, as opposed to moody intensity from some of the ballad-style songs.
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, R.E.M. actually is a three-piece band and on Accelerate, they run into a bit of a problem as far as that goes. The problem is that various songs on this album sound like other songs that R.E.M. has already done. "Man-Sized Wreath" opens with virtually the same sound as "Disturbance At The Heron House." "Houston" sounds like any number of songs from the I.R.S. years. Other songs, like "I'm Gonna DJ," sound remarkably familiar as well. In other words, those who have heard a lot of R.E.M.'s music - regardless of their opinion on it! - will find much of this album to be familiar in its sound and feel and while some might feel like this is a coming home after some experimental years, I figure the band can do better than simply rewrite new songs on top of old music.
Still, it is not enough to bring this album down into territory where it is anywhere near a "not recommend." Accelerate has the merits of being a good, listenable album as well as a sufficiently smart and dense album as fans of R.E.M. would expect and, in fact, demand. But it's not the best or most original R.E.M. album ever. Thematically, R.E.M. may be recapturing its past glory with an activism that is attractive and meets the needs of the time, but musically, this is more a return to a familiar place than any sort of continued growth of the band.
The best track is "Houston," the low point is the fairly unmemorable "Sing For The Submarine."
For other R.E.M. albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Life’s Rich Pageant
Out Of Time
Automatic For The People
New Adventures In Hi-Fi
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 - 2003 (Single Disc)
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 – 2003 (Deluxe)
Around The Sun
. . . And I Feel Fine: The Best Of The I.R.S. Years
Check out how this album stacks up against others by visiting my Music Review Index Page where the reviews are organized from best to worst.
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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