In the latest issue of Spin magazine Michael Stipe says “I think I’m better when I write about things that are not me.” This realization might not ring true for the fans that came to appreciate the rather personal depths the three previous R.E.M. albums had begun exploring. Until Accelerate, post-Bill Berry R.E.M. had been growing to look like a different breed of R.E.M., one of uncharacteristic straightforwardness and without some of the typical enigmas that had shrouded Stipe’s subject matter in the previous twenty years.
“I’ve Been High” and “Beat a Drum” from Reveal, as well as “At My Most Beautiful” from Up and the majority of Around the Sun found Stipe exploring straightforward songwriting in a surprisingly refreshing way, at times offering an often prosaic catharsis of emotion, as in Up’s “Walk Unafraid” and Reveal’s “I’ll Take the Rain.”
By some very disheartening fluke in rock history, this decade found R.E.M. dismissed by critics and fans alike for their output since the departure of drummer Bill Berry. Even Bill Berry’s last album with the band, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, was largely ignored despite being among the best records the band has released. For whatever reason, most people stopped caring about R.E.M., but this was their loss. Though Up and Reveal take a lot of time and effort (not to mention trips to the dictionary or wikipedia) to appreciate, they are two of the bands most beautiful works. Around the Sun isn’t without merit, either. Speaking of which, do I own the only copy including “Electron Blue,” “Outsiders,” or “Ascent of Man?” I would think these three tracks would be enough to save it from some of the more acrid dismissals its been receiving lately.
Accelerate looks like R.E.M.’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind: the return to the classic sound that everyone should love. R.E.M. has reverted its sound to the Coca-Cola Classic of their I.R.S. years, a sound some casual fans might not even know about. Though the political subject matter of Accelerate’s lyrics are every bit as contemporary as they were on 1986’s equally politically charged Lifes Rich Pageant, this kind of writing is really nothing new for Stipe. “Until the Day is Done,” a standout on Accelerate, is a highlight in their near 30 year career. Eerily reminiscent of Lifes’ “Swan Swan H,” which masqueraded as something of a Civil War dirge, “Until the Day is Done” takes this same feel, and almost as dire subject matter, to a particularly uplifting height. Offering a message of “carry(ing) on until the day is done,” the song could do quite well as an official song for the Obama campaign.
Accelerate is a great record. It succeeds where Monster failed at being high quality rock for rock’s sake. It also has a better chance at gaining R.E.M. new fans than any record since then. “Supernatural Superserious” is their catchiest and best single since Monster’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” “I’m Gonna DJ” is a cute end to the album, which finds Michael sounding an awful lot like Christian rock’s erstwhile hero Steve Taylor. Don’t believe me? Dig out your copy of Squint and see if it doesn’t sound like a missing track.
There is no lack of great songs on Accelerate, only introspective writing. There was something beginning to blossom in his writing that now seems lost at being turned outward. Though Stipe might think this works best, there is something about this reversion that smells a little of insincerity. Though it is a harsh word to describe such a great record, R.E.M. are risking something by this placation of their critics. Up and Reveal were rock albums for thinking adults, which are just as rare in rock music as thinking adults. I for one am not looking forward to any more overplayed and mindless singles as were seen in the late 80s and early 90s. Hopefully the artistic success and economic failure of the their four previous albums have saved us from that.