Continuing on with my modern-day takes on late-period RE.M. albums – an endeavor inspired by 2023 vinyl reissues of those records – I’ll be less self-indulgent on only provide just a bit of personal backstory this time.
I found a used CD copy Accelerate at a yard sale a few years ago. As with most everything the group did post-Monster, I hadn’t heard any of the songs prior to that point. So I came to Accelerate more than a decade after its original 2008 release. And on that first listen (in, I think, 2019) I was surprised at just how solid a collection it was. It did not, as I’ve subsequently pointed out countless times with regard to the band’s other late-era works, sound much like Chronic Town, but then does Abbey Road sound like Please Please Me? Only seven years elapsed between those records. Better, perhaps, to think of Accelerate (made a quarter century after R.E.M.’s debut) in the same way one might view The Division Bell versus The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
Accelerate is a comparatively brief album; at a mere 34 minutes, it’s closer in length to albums of the LP era; no Brothers in Arms 55-minute overindulgence for our boys from Athens. (The mixed reception that greeted 2004’s Around the Sun – also a 55-minute album – may have played into this.) In any event, Accelerate’s economy/brevity is a feature, not a bug.
“Living Well is the Best Revenge” roars out of the speakers, with a character not unlike “It’s the end of the World.” Peter Buck’s distorted and melodic guitar work, Mike Mills’ active bass lines (and trademark countermelodic vocals) plus Michael Stipe’s impassioned vocals all hearken back to the band’s best work. The song itself isn’t among the band’s most memorable, but it’s solid. The drums (by future King Crimson member Bill Rieflin) are buried a bit in the mix, but they’re spot-on.
Better even is “Man Sized Wreath.” Bucks’s guitar is a crunchy drone; Mills’ bass work is even tastier. And the vocal arrangement is classic R.E.M. “Supernatural Superserious” initially peels back the sonic complexity, and even when the tune gets fully underway, it’s a model of economy. The track’s feel is of a piece with Green and Document-era tracks. Thanks to tracks like this, listeners who might have wanted more a rocking R.E.M. than they got with Reveal and Around the Sun wouldn’t find much if anything to complain about with Accelerate.
It’s only four cuts in, with “Hollow Man,” that the balladeering, piano-focused side of the band appears. And that’s only part of what the song offers. “Hollow Man” seamlessly shifts back and forth between contemplative/quiet and rousing/rocking. Producer Jacknife Lee demonstrates a good understanding of the group’s strengths, and Rieflin’s playing here follows in in the style of Bill Berry.
R.E.M. has released more than a few waltz-based tunes, and “Houston” is another. The song is reminiscence of another such tune, “Swan Swan H” from 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant. Some odd production choices – distracting crackle and distortion – mar an otherwise strong rocker in the title track. Some interesting orchestration (or maybe keyboard texture) is buried in the mix; the song deserves better. By no means a disaster, it’s merely a brief, missed opportunity.
Fans of the band’s acoustic side a la Out of Time – not to mention three-quarter time – will luxuriate in the hypnotic “Until the Day is Done.” Anyone who might have written the band off as a spent force surely hasn’t heard this tune, as fine a folk-leaning song as R.E.M. has ever produced. Special notice should be accorded to the work of Peter Buck and Bill Rieflin, but Mills and Stipe are show to good effect as well.
The soaring “Mr. Richards” is as lyrically oblique as anything in the band’s catalog, but at least the words are audible. (A helpful lyric sheet is included in the vinyl reissue.) Mills’ vocal harmonies make a good song even better. Peter Buck’s nimble guitar work enlivens the slightly spooky “Sing for the Submarine.” Rieflin’s punctuating drum beats and an atmospheric arrangement add to the song’s allure.
Rieflin introduces “Horse to Water” with an energetic drum figure, and the band fires on all cylinders. The most powerful arrangement on the entire record, “Horse to Water” is R.E.M. at its most rocking. It’s also the band it its most concise, clicking in at just a shade over two minute. It’s an exemplar of the “leave ‘em wanting more” philosophy.
Even briefer is the album closer, “I’m Gonna DJ.” A pounding, insistent character and some sung-spoken Stipe vocals are supported by some supremely tight musicianship. And with “woo hoo” vocals peppered throughout the arrangement, the song seems to reveal a band that’s having a lot of fun doing what it does. And that’s true of Accelerate in general; as such, anyone who likes R.E.M. but hasn’t given this album a listen should do so forthwith.
To wrap up, it’s back to a personal note. Adding this and Reveal to my vinyl collection, I see that I now have nearly all of R.E.M.’s studio releases in the classic media format. Lacking from that stack are three in a row from the ‘90s: Monster (which I bought on original release on CD and didn’t love), New Adventures in Hi-Fi (ditto/meh) and Up, which I’ve never heard. My understanding is that the last of those is set for reissue next month. If I find myself with a review copy, you’ll hear about it.