"The vista I see now is changing. Uncertainty is suffocating. Our hope has never felt so great..." It's become fashionable of late to hate on R.E.M.'s last album, 2004's Around the Sun, so much so that even the band has been badmouthing it lately, dismissing it as a result of them not really getting along at the time. Well, they'd know better than me, but I won't go there. Sun is clearly overproduced at times but I still think it has its grace moments, all the more so because it's an album drenched in melancholy and compromise. (And I still like it better than Reveal, and even the back half of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, their last venture with original and much-missed drummer Bill Berry.)
That being said, Accelerate, which officially came out yesterday, is no Around the Sun. It's just as political as AoS -- in some ways, Accelerate is their most overtly political album since Document. But, now, Stipe, Mills, and Buck have gotten the band back together. And, imbued with that sense of team confidence, they're picking up the pace and taking no more prisoners. The end result is short, fast, and dirty, a half-hour-long album which (as one of my colleagues in US history, southern upbringing, and R.E.M. fandom noted yesterday) probably most recalls 1986's Life's Rich Pageant.
From the first track, "Living Well is the Best Revenge," the difference is manifest. In Around the Sun, R.E.M. were just as political, but much more tentative and unsure of themselves. Remember all the relationship anguish of Sun? Well, now the men from Athens have the wind at their backs. "All your sad and lost apostles hum my name and flare their nostrils, choking on the bones you toss to them. Well I'm not one to sit and spin, 'cause living well's the best revenge. Baby, I am calling you on that." The equally aggressive second-track, "Man-Sized Wreath" (i.e. a huge, ridiculous emotional ploy and substitute for thought) takes up the standard with enthusiasm: "Nature abhors a vacuum but what’s between your ears?" That heady sense of being not only on the right side of the argument but -- at long last -- on the right side of history persists throughout Accelerate and keeps it afloat. "Mr. Richards" jauntily takes glee in a Cheney-esque figure (or at least one of Dubya's Dicks) finally receiving his comeuppance and going to prison for his transgressions, and "Horse to Water" is equally mad as hell and won't take it anymore. ("I'm not that easy, I am not your horse to water. I hold my breath, I come around.") And even the slight downers, such as the beautiful and too-brief post-Katrina ballad "Houston" ("If the storm doesn't kill me, the government will") still mostly resonate with hope of change to come: "It's a new day today, and the coffee is strong. I finally got some rest." (By the way, as a note to the R.E.M. fans out there, I love how that fog-horn sound in "Houston" calls back to "Leave" and particularly "Undertow" from Hi-Fi, which in retrospect also seem rather Katrina-esque.)
On the Peter Buck end, Accelerate interpolates and reconfigures the jingly-jangly riffs of Life's Rich Pageant with the (much-underappreciated) sonic grunge of Monster, and I can't wait to hear these cuts live. Still, Accelerate's secret weapon is probably bassist Mike Mills, who brings back the harmonizing of Out of Time and earlier albums, and single-handedly elevates tracks like "Living Well" and "Sing for the Submarine." Speaking of the latter, "Sing for the Submarine" is, for the time being, my high point of Accelerate, a dense, moody track that hearkens back to much of the R.E.M. canon. ("Electron Blue" and "Feeling Gravity's Pull" are explicitly name-dropped.) I haven't come close to unpacking it yet: "It's all a lot less frightening than you would have had it be. But that's the good news, my darling, it is what it's going to be." But I'm definitely enjoying the attempt, and I love the Pink Floydish power-chords as the song builds to chorus. (If negativity is required, I could honestly take or leave the first single, "Supernatural Superserious," -- it's a lot like "Imitation of Life" on Reveal -- and I tend to skip over it. And "Until the Day is Done," the sole mid-tempo ballad here, is less interesting than most of AoS. But neither are deal-killers.)
So, the short answer is this: if you thought R.E.M. has lost a few steps lately and have thus skipped the past few albums, then the reviews for Accelerate are true: They're back in a big way, and you should definitely check this one out. And if you've stuck with 'em all the way, then you'll be pleased to discover that they're on the same page as many of us this election year: To wit, after eight years (and arguably more) in the mire, it's nigh time we progressive-minded lefties started kicking ass and taking names. "Don't turn your talking points on me, History will set me free. The future's ours and you don't even read the footnote now!"