R.E.M.’s last album, Around the Sun, stays on my shelf only for the sake of catalog completeness; it’s been freed once or twice since 2004 to be dusted off and quickly reassessed: Did a band this important really release something so incomprehensibly dull and unrelentingly bored with itself? Well, they did. And Michael Stipe — the one singing and wearing raccoon eye shadow lately — even acknowledged the misstep, admitting that the group had lost focus, and that he, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills “didn’t talk… for a couple of records.” The slow-moving, keyboard-heavy, adult-contemporary-leaning Sun felt like a sputtering roadside breakdown for a band that was running on fumes. But the critical and commercial shrugs that met the album seem to have had one overwhelmingly positive effect: They gave R.E.M. something to prove.
Nothing to do, then, but hit the gas and hope for the best, a method Accelerate — R.E.M.’s 14th studio album — establishes right there in the title. Whether inspired by their own stagnation, market forces, or producer Jacknife Lee, the decision to lift the rock restraining order worked wonders: Accelerate corrals 35 minutes of the fastest songs Stipe and Co. have written in decades, all performed with a sense of joyous purpose that clearly comes from a “Fuck it, let’s just do this” attitude. They haven’t sounded this surprised with themselves since 1998’s Up, haven’t made an album this consistent since 1992’s Automatic for the People, and haven’t redlined so engagingly since 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, whose terrific “These Days” lives on in spirit here.
ILLUSTRATION BY RICCARDO VECCHIO
And though populated almost exclusively by snarling guitars and hell-bent drums, Accelerate doesn’t suffer any whiffs of desperation like 1994’s half-decent, glam-rock youth grab, Monster. Instead, here’s a band rediscovering the shadings and strengths of rock’n’roll elementalism.Sure, album bookends “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “I’m Gonna DJ” share the same basic ingredients and roughly the same tempo, but the former looks lovingly at R.E.M.’s distant rockin’ past, while the near-ecstatic latter (“Death is pretty final / I’m collecting vinyl / I’m gonna DJ at the end of the world!”) offers conclusive proof they haven’t lost their inspiration completely in recent years.
More than just velocity lifts Accelerate: It slows for the requisite Important Ballad (“Until the Day Is Done”), a political brooder more akin to “Drive” than “Everybody Hurts,” and the terrific, mid-tempo “Hollow Man,” with the most satisfying R.E.M. chorus in eons. Still, Accelerate will be rightfully championed as the defibrillator that shocked a once-great band back to its senses. R.E.M. lay no claim to being the biggest rock group on earth –leave that empty title to their contemporary U2 — but if they need an award, here’s one that fits: Most Improved.
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