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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
Whatever. Look, it’s inarguably true that from Monster on, R.E.M. has been guilty of indulging a series of less-accessible impulses, and that the trio of albums they’ve churned out over the last decade – 1998’s Up, 2001’s Reveal, and the aforementioned Around the Sun – were frequently unforgivably logy. But it’s just as true that a great deal of the anger aimed at the band has had less to do with its new music than the shadow cast by its old music. Like the Stones, R.E.M.’s biggest crime was simply sticking around too long; their musical maturation occurred in tandem with their audience’s golden youth, and nothing they’d ever release after Automatic would be able to touch those memories.
So instead of shadowboxing with their past, Messrs. Stipe, Buck, and Mills used their notoriously huge record contract as a safety blanket as they disappeared into a rabbit hole, following muses both easily identifiable (Monster) and not (pretty much everything else). By Buck’s own admission, the band has been on a “downward slide,” but at least they were moving; much as some fans might wish for another Document or Out of Time, if the band had chickened out and slid into neutral, they’d have been forgotten long ago. Whatever its failings, R.E.M.’s recent music has never failed to provoke.
Which brings us to the band’s 14th album, the promisingly (and, as it turns out, appropriately) titled Accelerate – and something else you’re going to read a thousand times, which is this: The new record’s surprisingly good – and, even better for those kvetchy fans, it’s good in a way that hearkens strongly back to the band’s classic sides.
It bears mentioning, of course, that if you go in thinking you’re going to get an album that will transport you back to your wild, misspent youth, you’ll come away bitterly disappointed. This band isn’t that R.E.M., and expecting them to be is stupid and unfair. They’ve circled back to where they started, in a fashion, but that doesn’t tell the whole story; this is familiar territory, sure, but it isn’t a homecoming.
What Accelerate does – and does well – is rock, something the band hasn’t bothered to do in the studio for so long that a not-inconsiderable number of people no longer believed they had it in them. This probably has something to do with why the album occasionally feels a tad defensive – opener “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” spits bullets, and is matched in intensity by “Horse to Water” and the okay-it’s-kinda-ridiculous closing track “I’m Gonna DJ” – but even if the band sometimes feels like it has its fangs bared a little too brightly, the songs go down too easily to spend much time dwelling on their deficiencies.
And no, Buck hasn’t hauled his Rickenbackers out of storage for this album – but he does buttress the songs with punchier riffs than he has in a very long time, and the songs are laced with the sweet harmonies you remember, and the whole thing is over in roughly half an hour. If you can steer your way past the unreasonable expectations that have dogged the band since “Everybody Hurts” ruled the airwaves, you just might fall in love with this disc, for all the right reasons.