Saturday, April 05, 2008

Album Review: R.E.M. - Accelerate (3.5/5)

Following the band's period of major success in the early '90s, the renowned band, by most accounts, has been on a downward spiral, which included the loss of drummer Bill Berry after their 1996 album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Accelerate, so they so, is supposed to be R.E.M.'s long-awaited return to form. But I do not always agree with them, and while I would like to report that Accelerate lives up to my expectations, it falls short.

Not that it's a bad album--it's not--but R.E.M. has achieved greatness, so judged against that, it falls short. To its credit, the album is lean and direct: 11 tracks clocking in at just under 35 minutes, with most of the songs coming in at around 3 minutes (some just 2). Each song makes its point and we're moved along at a clip. Accelerated it is. The opening tracks in particularly come on quick and strong. "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" is quite hard-hitting, an apt opener. "Man-Sized Wreath" keeps up the pace and ups the feedback. First single, "Supernatural Superserious" is another salvo of energetic rock.

After a fairly decent opening, the middle of the album sags. The tempo doesn't take a break until the beginning of "Hollow Man," but the piano and acoustic instruments of the opening (and subsequent verses) are quickly replaced by the electric guitar and drums of the chorus. "Houston" is even mellower, a lightweight rumination on Katrina, that lacks a good melody and ends before it can go anywhere. "Accelerate" is more upbeat, but gloomy ("where is the cartoon escape hatch for me?).

"Until the Day is Done" turns it around though, a clear highlight. This song sounds like classic R.E.M.: acoustic instruments, thought-provoking lyrics, vaguely western ambiance. The target here is modern day America, specifically the war and other follies and the lies told to cover up our problems. "Mr. Richards" is a quirky number. I kind of like it, but it's a little too repetitive. "Sing for the Submarine," at almost 5 minutes the album's longest song, is a moody rumination on what I'm not sure.

The albums ends with two more very short songs (shorter together than track 9 by about half a minute). "Horse to Water" is the better of the two. Michael Stipe's insistent lyrical delivery recalls "It's the End of the World as We Know It," but lack's that song's sense of fun (that R.E.M. could write a "fun" song about the apocalypse 20 years before the current wave of "ironic" indie shows what innovators they once were). "I'm Gonna DJ" is another short, loud burst, where Stipe proclaims "I'm gonna DJ at the end of the world," yet again recalling that 1987 classic.

As a reassurance, after about my fourth time through Accelerate, I switched gears and listened to "Drive" from Automatic for the People. The dark melody, repetitive bass guitar, and lush strings gave me goosebumps, reminding me of how great R.E.M. could be, and in particular how much I love Automatic for the People. Yes, this band is capable of great music, I just didn't hear much of it on this new album.

Best: Supernatural Superserious, Until the Day is Done, Man-Sized Wreath, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, Horse to Water

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