R.E.M.embering better times

March 31, 2008


This hasn't been an easy decade for fans of R.E.M. The favorite sons of Athens, Ga., haven't made a beginning-to-end great album since "Automatic for the People" in 1992. Even guitarist Peter Buck now admits the band has been on a "downward slide."

Mind you, that hasn't stopped the musicians, their label or their tireless boosters from hailing every new release as the one that recaptures former glories or "the record where R.E.M. rocks again." And so goes the corporate line on "Accelerate," the band's 14th studio album, which arrives in stores on Tuesday.

We've heard this before -- with "Monster" (1994), with "Up" (1998) and even with the dreadfully dull "Around the Sun" four years ago. It wasn't true then, and it isn't entirely true now. But "Accelerate" is at least the band's most consistent and focused effort in 16 years, and with 11 songs breezing by in a little more than half an hour, it also has the healthiest pulse.

It's only fair to compare R.E.M. to U2, the other guitar-driven, politically active and wonderfully rousing quartet that bridged the gap between the indie-rock '80s and the alternative explosion of the '90s, and the peer band that made the leap from the college circuit to the arena -- though U2 was always better suited to the latter.

With a producer recommended by Bono -- Jacknife Lee, whose credits include Snow Patrol and Bloc Party -- "Accelerate" was largely recorded in Dublin, home base for you-guessed-it, and Mr. Hewson and his mates apparently cheered their American cousins' progress. If we ride this riff to its logical conclusion, "Accelerate" is supposed to be R.E.M.'s "All That You Can't Leave Behind." But if you're a fan of both bands at their best, that isn't a compliment.

Yes, singer Michael Stipe (48), bassist/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills (49) and Buck (51) are cheerfully harking back to the more rollicking sounds of their youth, circa, say, "Reckoning" (1984) or "Green" (1988). In case anyone misses the "reclaiming our history" angle, Stipe even sprinkles references to earlier lyrics and song titles through the new "Sing for the Submarine." ("It's for you electron blue ... Lift up your voice, feel gravity's pull.") But in reaching back, the band is only coming up with generic echoes of its finest work. Something important is missing.

The harder-rocking moments of "Accelerate" went down pretty well when R.E.M. performed at South by Southwest a few weeks ago. The rollicking "Living Well's the Best Revenge" and "Mansized Wreath," the ode to teenage geekdom and first single "Supernatural Superserious" and the angry, vaguely political barn-burners "Mr. Richards" and "Horse to Water" were appealing enough as they sped by -- nothing new, but as worthy as any of the outtakes on an odds 'n' sods collection such as "Dead Letter Office." But then, midway through the set, the band rolled into "Fall on Me," and the shortcomings of its latest material became apparent.

A tune from "Lifes Rich Pageant" (1986) about acid rain in particular and oppression in general, "Fall on Me" has an engaging ambiguity and a gripping emotional heft that the new tracks lack. Just as sorely missed are Bill Berry's distinctive tom-heavy drum patterns and the layered harmonies and counter-melodies that he and Mills once added to the mix, and which were always as important as Stipe's lead vocals.

Just think of how great that "All you sad and lost apostles/Hum my name and flare their nostrils" line from "Living Well's the Best Revenge" would have sounded with the old trio vocals instead of the now-prominent Stipe lead and buried Mills backing. It surely is no exaggeration to say that Berry's departure was an even greater blow to R.E.M. than the deaths of Keith Moon and John Bonham were to the Who and Led Zeppelin; the latter were merely phenomenal drummers, while Berry was that as well as an astounding singer and songwriter.

No, I don't expect R.E.M. to live in the past, even when that past was as extraordinary as the 11-year run from "Chronic Town" to "Automatic for the People." Asked by Pitchfork whether "Accelerate" was a conscious return to "classic R.E.M.," Buck reportedly cringed and replied, "You try to avoid repetition. I could probably rewrite 'Murmur' every day, and that would be a little less than interesting."

Sorry, Peter, but I don't buy it. When fans say they long for a return to the R.E.M. of old, they're missing the magical band camaraderie and the mysterious but undeniable poignancy of the old songs, not the particular chord patterns, jangling guitars or mumbled vocals. If R.E.M. really could write another "Murmur" or "Automatic for the People" whenever it wanted, I wish for once it would.