It’s a difficult challenge for a great, established band (or solo artist) to put out new material. When you have a dozen albums behind you, filled with classic songs, how can you avoid the let-down of comparisons to your storied history?
Accelerate is R.E.M.’s 15th studio album and viewed in that light it is something of a disappointment. There is no ‘Half a World Away’ here. No ‘Nightswimming.’ No ‘Driver 8,’ ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ or ‘Fall On Me.’ No ‘So. Central Rain’ or ‘Rockville.’ How could there be, really? Those songs, and many others, are among the all-time greats, written and recorded over a decade in one of those creative bursts that has to have a beginning and an end.
But there’s another light in which this album can be viewed, and from that perspective it is a roaring success (“roaring” being an appropriate term, given the nature of the music). Much has been written about how R.E.M. lost its step after drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997. Their last album as a quartet, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, was a sprawling minor masterpiece and the three albums that followed (Up, Reveal and Around the Sun) were major disappointments, or so the story goes. I find a lot to like in that trio of albums (particularly Up, which I’d put right up there with some of their great early work), but they are clearly the work of a band in transition. Listening to them prior to buying Accelerate, I was struck by what a minor role Peter Buck played — it’s as if the band lost both its drummer and guitarist. Heavy on atmosphere, dominated by keyboards, produced to the point of sterilization, the one thing that’s clear is that those albums weren’t much fun to make.
Which brings us to Accelerate… and I bet it was a blast. Peter Buck is back with a vengeance. This is the loudest album R.E.M. has ever made, louder even than Monster, which mired its grunge in murkiness. This album is pure thrash — 35 minutes of balls-to-the-wall rock-and-roll. And for the most part it’s a great time. A couple songs are light on hook and melody and as a result sort of drone along, but nothing here lasts very long (several of the songs clock in at just over two minutes, only a couple reach four). Two-and-a-half of the tracks are comparatively slow, and they’re among the album’s finest, including ‘Until the Day is Done,’ a political dirge that would have been at home on Automatic for the People. And ‘Supernatural Superserious’ is their best single since ‘Losing My Religion.’
This is an above-average R.E.M. album but not a great one. More important, though, it’s a signal that this is a band very much invested in playing music together. The last few albums suggested that maybe they were close to hanging it up. Accelerate suggests they’re just getting started.