Saturday, March 29, 2008

Album Review – R.E.M. "Accelerate" (2008)

Many years ago, my friends and I were listening to this new album by a band from Athens, Ga., and debating the lyrics. "Did he just sing 'inside a moral kiosk?' What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

More than 20 year later, no debating is necessary. We can hear the words Michael Stipe is singing these days – and, for the most part, we know what they mean.

At least we do with Accelerate (2008), R.E.M.'s 14th album and its first release in four years, which is due in stores this Tuesday.

Do I like this album? Yes, I do. Very much.

A few months from now, will I reach for it rather than my personal favorite releases from the band, Murmur (1983) or Life's Rich Pageant (1986)? I'm not sure.

For one thing, as you might have heard, this is an out-and-out rock album. The trademark jangling guitars have mostly disappeared, replaced by crunching power chords, fuzzbox effects and other forms of musical rawness. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. But, again, this somewhat personal: I've always preferred when R.E.M. goes folkier with songs like "Perfect Circle," "Fall On Me" or "Near Wild Heaven" rather than the harder-driving "What's the Frequency Kenneth," "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" and "Finest Worksong." In my perfect world, Peter Buck would always channel Roger McGuinn, rather than Jim Hendrix. And Stipe's voice would softly drip with aching passion, rather than sound like it's coming out of a megaphone.

That being said, Accelerate works in ways that the band's more recent efforts have fallen short.

There is a lot of raw power in these songs, thanks to the band working through them in concert before heading to the studio. But the emphasis on power hasn't really affected the band's sense of melody and musical creativity. I'd argue that standout track a like "Man-Sized Wreath" and "Hollow Man," with all of their shifts, are some of the most interesting pieces of music that the band has recorded in years. I'll be humming them for months, which is always a good sign.

Play "Man-Sized Wreath" by R.E.M.

Now about those lyrics. Stipe recently told Spin magazine: "When the empire is going down the toilet, it's easy to write great, angry songs." Indeed, Stipe's seething fury with the Bush administration infects the entire album. And that's not a bad thing. Stipe's lyrics have never been one of his strengths – in fact, it has been one of his weaknesses, I'd argue – but it's easy to see that the newfound passion of the formerly apolitical lead singer has helped him write lyrics of unsurpassed (for him) cogency and poignancy. The paean to Hurricane Katrina survivors, "Houston," includes the opening line "If the storm doesn't kill me/The government will." But then Stipe goes on to capture the mixture of hopelessness and necessary optimism felt by many so hurricane survivors: "I was taught to hold my head high/Collect what is mine/Make the best of what today has"

Play "Houston" by R.E.M.

Almost every song from the album is haunting in its own way. But despite all the seriousness, band can still have fun with "I'm Gonna DJ" – kind of a weird combination of the "It's the End of the World…"and "Radio Song" from 1991's Out of Time.

I'm sure I'll be listening to Accelerate for weeks and even months to come. But I'll keep my copy of Murmur close at hand.

Besides, one of these days, I got to figure what the !@#$% Stipe is singing…

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