It’s been years since R.E.M. flat-out rocked. The veteran band spent its past few albums exploring musical texture and gauzy atmospherics, and while it surely filled some creative need, the experimentation on “Reveal” in 2001 and “Around the Sun” in 2004 mostly felt aimless.
The group has refocused in a big way on “Accelerate,” turning itself into a brawny riff machine that makes the trio’s 14th album vibrant and lively. (Listen here to a podcast discussing the album.) R.E.M. worked relatively quickly on the songs, shaping them on stage with a handful of shows in 2007 and then moving immediately to the recording studio with producer Jacknife Lee. That sense of urgency comes through. Peter Buck plays molten guitar parts, his riff cascading like a rock slide through opener “The Best Revenge is Living Well” and pulsing behind Michael Stipe’s voice on “Mr. Richards.”
The quick turnaround in the studio helped Stipe, who didn’t have time to get overly fussy with his lyrics. R.E.M. has never been known for lyrical transparency, but this is about as straightforward as the band has ever sounded as Stipe addresses the state of national affairs. The singer seems to have shaken off the lethargy that marked his singing, and his voice burns with raw feeling, especially on the electrifying first single, “Supernatural Superserious.”
"Accelerate" quiets down a bit in the middle, with Buck switching to folky acoustic guitar on "Until the Day is Done" and Stipe taking a melancholy turn on "Hollow Man." It's but a brief pause in what amounts to a propulsive reemergence by a band that rose from the college-radio underground in the early '80s to an alt-rock pillar in the '90s. "Accelerate" serves notice that R.E.M. intends to stay that way.
(Photo by Cass Bird)