When Michael Stipe sings about the need to find a new direction on the title track to his band’s new album, it may or may not be a reference to the recent decline of R.E.M.’s studio work; there’s no doubting, however, that the album as a whole is a deliberately corrective measure, just as there is no doubting that the band was in dire need of a fresh start, and their willingness to admit it is a good omen of the basic likability of their career revamp, Accelerate.
The band’s fall from grace has been well-documented, of course, though it bears mentioning that, even among diehard fans, you’ll find a lot of disagreement about where that fall began. There have been seeds of discontentment there ever since the band first strayed from rock on the largely-acoustic albums Out of Time and Automatic for the People, and those seeds began to take bloom with the band’s promised return to rock on Monster— which didn’t rock in nearly the same manner fans had come to expect– and continued to blossom even with the perennially underrated experimentation of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the fascinating but uneven Up, and the studied classicism of Reveal. But though this is certainly a minority opinion, I found these sonic adventures to be further testament to the band’s creative vision, their restlessness and their desire for exploration. It wasn’t until the abysmally boring, meandering mess of Around the Sun that I began to fear the band was on life support, but that album was so utterly crappy that it seemed to cast a shadow over the ones that came before it.
So if Stipe is admitting that R.E.M. was in need of a new direction, he’s being generous; really, they didn’t need a change in direction so much as they needed a direction— any direction at all. And the new album, Accelerate, is, if nothing else, not a directionless album like the last one was. But what makes it a very good, if not quite great R.E.M. album– an album worthy of their name, anyway– is that its direction is not backwards, nor is it a step away from the adventurous spirit that has always made them such a compelling band. It’s a consolidation of their strengths, to be sure, and yes, on some level, it’s a return to full-bodied, guitar-driven rock, but it recalls their early days in spirit rather than sound. It isn’t a throwback album, and while it’s certainly calculated to remind fans of why they fell in love with R.E.M. in the first place, it isn’t content to simply rehash past glories.
What it is is an R.E.M. album that sounds very much like the work of veteran craftsmen– musicians who are comfortable in their own sound and skilled enough as record-makers that they’re able to color within the lines of their familiar style but do so with a new set of shades and colors, commenting on and expanding their signature sound rather than simply repackaging it. In other words, it’s just the kind of album that rock’s elder statesmen should be making. Sure, they’ve reverted to their the same basic ingredients that made their early albums so endearing– Peter Buck’s chiming guitars and mid-tempo jangle, Mike Mills’ cheery backing vocals, and, for the first time since Bill Berry left, a full-time drummer– but this album doesn’t recall any of their early albums in particular, and they’ve never cut anything quite like the folksy sing-along of “Mr. Richards” or the cheerfully oddball rock of “I’m Gonna DJ,” nor have they ever rocked with quite the same unpretentious glee of “Living Well is the Best Revenge.” Songs like “Houston” channel the folk leanings of their earliest work through the arena-ready sheen of Life’s Rich Pageant and the dark textures of Automatic for the People, and “Horse to Water” is a 21st century update of maniacal rockers like “These Days” and “Just a Touch.”
And just as the band is content to have fun blurring the lines of their own legacy, Michael Stipe sounds liberated as a songwriter, easily shifting from the political paranoia of “Houston” to character sketches like “Mr. Richards,” even playfully referencing R.E.M. classics throughout “Sing for the Submarine.” Within this context, it’s much easier to stomach his self-help anthems like “Supernatural Superserious”– sure, you miss the cryptic riddles of Murmur and Reckoning, but he’s developed a surprisingly wide range as a writer, and his craft continues to sound more and more refined.
Of course, the album’s place in the R.E.M. timeline is both a blessing and a curse; the sheer awfulness of the album that came before it ensures that it’s an absolute joy to hear the band rocking again, but it’s also hard to forget that there’s a fair amount of calculation here, enough that the album’s impact is muffled by the absence of the mystery and intrigue that made Murmur so influential, or the spookiness that made Automatic for the People so affecting. At the same time, though, Accelerate finds the band reconnecting with the energy and vigor not heard since Life’s Rich Pageant without forsaking the sense of craft that they began to develop on Reveal, which makes Accelerate not just a welcome addition to the R.E.M. canon, but a unique one, and an album that’s concise, energetic, and handsomely-crafted enough that it’s a pleasure to listen to even in spite of its flaws.