R.E.M. Is Back in Gear on 'Accelerate'

By David Malitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

It's a familiar story. After a long string of successes, beloved band loses its way, along with critical acclaim and hordes of fans. Soul-searching ensues. A back-to-the-basics collection of straightforward rock-and-roll follows and is hailed as a "return to form," "best album in a decade" or some other phrase that fits comfortably on a sticker on the upper right corner of a CD case.

And so it goes with "Accelerate," the 14th studio album by R.E.M., which is, to be sure, the band's best effort in more than a decade. That says plenty about the three middling, lackluster albums that followed 1996's "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" and set the bar so painfully low for the best American band of the 1980s. But there's more to offer here than backhanded compliments.

"Accelerate" is an album true to its name. It speeds along for 11 mostly punchy, succinct songs built around Peter Buck's thick guitars, Michael Stipe's memorable vocal melodies and bassist Mike Mills's gorgeous harmonies. The band (officially a trio since drummer Bill Berry's 1997 departure) has rarely sounded more focused or aggressive, with songs like "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" and "Horse to Water" bursting from the speakers, resulting in that rare R.E.M. album that begs to be turned up to 11.

That R.E.M. succeeds at this predictable career-rescuing gambit is encouraging, but in an odd way, also a bit depressing. The high points on "Accelerate" -- and that would be the first three and final two tracks -- are riveting, yet the band can't sustain the momentum for even the brief run time of 35 minutes, falling back into preachy, mid-tempo rock habits on songs like "Sing for the Submarine" and "Until the Day Is Done." (Sample lyric: "The business-first flat-earthers licking their wounds/The verdict is dire, the country's in ruins.") There's also a feeling of deja vu: R.E.M. first played the "rock card" with 1994's "Monster," that time in a response to the grunge/alt-rock boom. With "Accelerate" the band seems to be comfortably going along with that reliable resurrection narrative, but at least they brought a handful of great songs with them.

"I'm Gonna DJ" is especially refreshing for its unabashed silliness. "Death is pretty final/I'm collecting vinyl," Stipe declares at the outset before tackling "Web logs that get tangled as you bully and you wangle" while gleeful "woo-hoos" cascade in the background. "Horse to Water" is legitimately heavy, a true powerhouse that inspires the same kind of pogoing as choice cuts by the Buzzcocks or Husker Du. It's also one of many songs to take full advantage of the best thing R.E.M. has always had going for it, the perfect vocal interplay between Stipe and Mills. Even with the distortion dialed up, those two create some pop bliss when singing in unison.

For the 13-year-old kid who discovers R.E.M. 25 years from now, "Accelerate" won't be much more than an afterthought, maybe the second or third album he checks out after devouring everything from the band's early days. But for those die-hards and lapsed fans who are simply looking for a reason to again fall in love with a band that brought them so much joy in the past, "Accelerate" is all that and a bit more.

R.E.M. is scheduled to perform June 11 at Merriweather Post Pavilion .

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Horse to Water," "I'm Gonna DJ," "Living Well Is the Best Revenge"

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