Friday, April 11, 2008

Step on the Gas and Wipe that Tear Away

One more album review before the big Special Music Edition of Pop Culture America with John and Dave tomorrow, Saturday at 12PM Eastern on Warning: Special Music Editions may contain no actual musical content.

Accelerate -- R.E.M. (p. Jacknife Lee and R.E.M.)

When R.E.M. recently appeared on "The Colbert Report," Stephen put the following to them regarding the new album: "People are calling this your comeback album. When you hear people say that, do you want to tell them to go BLEEP themselves?"

Michael Stipe answered, "A small part of me kinda wants to say that."

Understandable. But what I kinda want to say to Michael Stipe is that his band's last three albums have ranged from disappointing to dreadful. Ever since the departure of drummer Bill Berry -- and who knew he was such a pivotal linchpin? -- R.E.M. has veered haphazardly between preachy social activism and draggy mooning. A few scattered highlights aside, the records Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun represent almost a decade of subpar work from a band that had been a consistently important artistic and commercial force since their debut in 1982. All due respect to Mr. Stipe, his group was in desperate need of a comeback.

With the recent release of Accelerate, their 14th album of original material, they have that comeback.


Setting aside the synthesizer moans and hookless noodling that marred those three previous efforts, R.E.M. returns to the jangling riff-rock guitar-based sound that made albums like 1988's Green and 1994's Monster shine. On the surface, this is the most engaging collection of tunes Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills have produced since New Adventures in Hi-Fi in 1996. Dig a little below the surface, however, and there are troubling signs.

The kick-off track, "Living Well is the Best Revenge," stomps hard right out of the gate and generates some genuine rock-and-roll heat. But the self-congratulatory lyrics, suggesting that those who criticize the band do so merely out of jealousy, are off-putting. And the rather easy potshots at TV pundits ("Don't turn your talking points on me") hint at more screed to come.

That screed comes to a head on "Until the Day Is Done," wherein Stipe takes on "the business first flat earthers" and contrasts one son (Our President) with another (rhymes with "Schmesus"), all to a mopey dirge that wouldn't have been out of place on the last record. So much for big time rock and roll.

Later, Stipe will take on the persona of a Katrina refugee in "Houston," and of a powerful, messianic figure (Our President again? Himself?) in "Hollow Man," warning, "believe in me, believe in nothing." These character studies are more complex and rich when they include a little self indictment, instead of simple chest thumping.

Sometimes the political outrage works. Maybe the most intriguing portrait is that of "Mr. Richards" who seems to be a spiritual kinsman to Bob Dylan's Mr. Jones: the establishment dupe who doesn't get it and never will. In the song, which features a strong melody and potent guitar work by both Buck and longtime R.E.M. sideman Scott McCaughey, Richards is on point in the midst of a conflict, then later at a trial where he's convicted. He's a little bit General Petraeus, a little bit Scooter Libby.

The most personal song here, "Supernatural Superserious" is an ode to self-invention and overcoming one's own past. With a crunching riff and a chord change on the bridge that ranks with this group's finest moments, "Super..." shows that the boys don't need to consult the newspaper to pen a winner. When Stipe sidesteps his own compulsion to preach and lets a little personal revelation come through, he is at his most effective.

Ultimately, this isn't the all-conquering classic it could be: too much of Around the Sun's pedantry seeps in for that. And the RAWK! is welcome, but more than a bit forced in spots. But Accelerate is undoubtedly a huge step forward for a band that I was frankly ready to be done with.

Whatever Michael Stipe may want to say about it, I'm glad they came back.

3 stars.

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