Sunday, May 11, 2008

ALBUM: "Accelerate" - R.E.M. (Warner Brothers, 2008)

Generally speaking, the accepted history of R.E.M. goes like this:

Liked by critics and musos:
Fables of the Reconstruction

Liked by critics & punters:
Lifes Rich Pageant

Liked by pretty much everyone:
Out of Time
Automatic for the People

…and then? That’s when things start to get a little murky. 1994’s Monster was a huge seller but regarded as something of a clever-clever misstep by the critical community. 1997 travelogue New Adventures in Hi-Fi initially flummoxed the fuck out of everyone but gradually gained enough of a following to take its place as the last ‘officially’ great R.E.M. album. From the point of Bill Berry’s departure, however, it’s been widely suggested that the band may as well have not even bothered. Each successive LP has been trumpeted as the long-awaited return of one of the world’s greatest rock bands, only for it to underwhelm, disappoint or frustrate in equal measure.

I’ve never gone along with this interpretation of events. Despite its occasional forays into Stipe’s deeper subconscious (I Don’t Sleep, I Dream being the most notable example), for the most part Monster was great fun: a knowing cartoon parody of rock & roll which swaggered into view daubed in eyeliner and popping bubblegum. Yet beneath the wall of noise lurked some of the band’s most plaintive recordings to date. Strange Currencies, Let Me In, Tongue - try as they might to play around with convention and perception, R.E.M. are simply too smart to be able to mask the esoteric leanings that lurk beneath their flashiest surface. New Adventures in Hi-Fi pushed the arena-rock template into darker, more mysterious territory, filtering the band’s widening vision through the vast expanse of the American highway to deliver their most diverse collection to date.

Then there’s Up, the album I still regard as their greatest achievement. R.E.M.’s first LP to be written and produced without the input of Bill’s mystical eyebrows (apparently the source of their true power), Up is the sound of a band attempting to find its feet after having the rug pulled out from under them – as Michael Stipe memorably put it at the time, “a three-legged dog learning to walk again”. The resultant album – a shuffling amalgam of inter-band tensions, chronic writer’s block and a compulsion to reformulate their sound from top-to-bottom - is utterly remarkable, not just for the quality of its songwriting but for the fact that somewhere within the painful regenerative process their essential humanity is laid bare. For the first time the band sounded broken, flawed even uncertain: in other words, as hesitant and stumbling as us mere mortals. Daysleeper, The Apologist, Diminished, Walk Unafraid, Falls to Climb – on any other record these would be regarded as career highs, yet for some reason the album has been all but written out of the history books, as if any R.E.M. record lacking foot-to-the-floor stadium anthems could never be deserving of their status as rock royalty. Ditto 2001’s summery Reveal, an album which was initially heralded as something of a revelation but later curiously demoted to the rank of intriguing misfire.

Indeed, for all its flaws - bloodless production, non-committal orchestration and several songs that are the very definition of half-formed (Aftermath, anyone?) – even 2004’s much-maligned Around the Sun is actually a pretty good listen, and certainly undeserving of its reputation as the ginger-haired stepson of the R.E.M. canon. Like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 before it, the record perhaps fell victim to the weight of expectation which accompanied its release, as if one album or film could ever alter the course of history. In reality the album was a far more subdued, restrained and intimate affair than initially trumpeted - the fraught response of a liberal conscience caught in a whirlwind beyond comprehension. Oblique references to 9/11 abound, in tandem with a sense of dignity and compassion which suggested that the band’s collective response to the events of that fateful September were rooted in shock and withdrawal rather than direct anger. Nevertheless, its two most potent protest songs - The Outsiders and Final Straw - were classic pieces of R.E.M. politicking: quietly intense distillations of offence and indignation which suggested a gathering sense of momentum to a nation’s fury. Ultimately though the album was considered a weak response to the times when apparently what most people wanted was a fire-spitting retread of Document (then again, it did also contain Wanderlust, so the criticism wasn’t entirely unjust).

Predictably, for all those with Stand-sized attention spans these last three albums went down about as well as a fart in a spacesuit. Now, call me a complete bastard (many do), but I’ve recently stopped going to see the band live because I just can’t hack being surrounded by clueless windowshoppers who go nuts for Orange Crush but chat all the way through Sitting Still because the only R.E.M. albums they own are Automatic, Monster and In Time. It seems to me that perceptions of the band fall squarely either side of what I call “the two R.E.M.s”: the first, a guitar-driven, stadium-conquering rock act; the flipside, a steely art collective with a knack for a killer tune. When the two sides of this equation butt heads (Losing My Religion, Drive, The One I Love), the results speak for themselves. However, whenever the band departs from its trademark formula of Rickenbacker jangle, catchy chorus and sparring Stipe-Mills vocals, there seems to be an infuriating perception that they’re “just not R.E.M. anymore”.

My own personal take on the band has always been influenced less by their songwriting style but by the air of cool, considered mystique that’s underpinned much of their output. What criticism of the post-Berry albums seems to have conveniently neglected is that the essence of the band never actually disappeared - it simply metamorphosed into a form compatible with their evolving sense of inner calm. It’s there in The Lifting, Walk Unafraid and I’ve Been High: songs whose emotional truth arises not from empty platitudes but their innate sense of poetic interplay. Indeed, despite the occasional clanger in the midst, from this point of view R.E.M. have never once departed from the intellectual and artistic template established by Murmur back in 1983.

Ever the band’s unofficial historian with one eye on their legacy and the other on its critical standing, it can’t have escaped Peter Buck’s attention that his boys have come in for a bit of a pasting of late. Indeed, despite his repeated protestations that public perception has never influenced the direction of their work, I suspect that it’s Buck who’s responsible for the band’s vigorous return to guitar-driven rock after three albums of exhausting his musical toy-box. I must admit that when it was announced that the new album was a return to the brash, ballsy style of Document and Lifes Rich Pageant – for my money, actually the two weakest LPs in the band’s back catalogue – I approached Accelerate with caution. R.E.M.’s most recent attempts to recapture the carefree days of the early work have invariably sounded clumsy, forced or - in the case of the best-forgotten Animal - just plain crap. Frankly, I was bracing myself for Accelerate to be the sound of a band foundering in the depths of an irrevocable mid-life crisis.

The good news first, then: it’s actually pretty solid, and at least not completely naff as initially feared. Following the wishy-washy production job that threatened to skewer whatever grace was exuded by Around the Sun, Accelerate is crisply produced by U2 alumnus Jacknife Lee and really benefits from an overall boost in volume. Unlike the lush, structured soundscapes of Up and Reveal, it’s cranked out with a smart ear for detail in the sparse instrumentation of each track: witness the crackling jabs of organ and discordant picked-harmonics which enliven Houston and Sing for the Submarine respectively.

Politically it’s forthright and agitated where Around the Sun was ponderous and preoccupied: lyrically-speaking, more Bad Day than The Outsiders. Michael Stipe has finally cast off his earnest boots to emerge as the ranting political commentator we so yearned for back in 2004, lashing out barbed witticisms left, right and centre to bait everyone from Congress to the mass media. Musically it’s like the last twenty years never happened as Buck and Mills dash off several songs reminiscent of These Days and Swan Swan H (indeed, the album’s best straight-ahead rocker, Horse to Water, would easily sit alongside It’s the End of the World as We Know It and Finest Worksong on Document with its piercing feedback squalls and explosive melodies). Accelerate features Mike Mills’ best bass-playing since Murmur and his most prominent vocal presence since the tail-end of Green; on the whole, it delivers exactly what was promised - a sort of Life's Rich Document in perfect sync with the zeitgeist.

Let’s not forget though that for all the bullish posturing, R.E.M. haven’t been that band since picking up the mandolin for Losing My Religion, and as such their gradual retreat into a progressively more dignified form of musical expression over the past decade has always seemed wholly in step with their standing as the rock world’s weathered conscience. To this end, Accelerate’s opening trio of songs immediately sets alarm-bells clanging. Living Well is the Best Revenge is marred by the kind of strangulated diatribes which sounded so uneasy on similar outings like Departure and suggest that Stipe really is getting way too old for this shit - it’s got a kicking chorus, but that isn’t enough to redeem the nagging sense that its themes and intentions are ill-served by a band that’s become too innately restrained to rev straight back into overdrive. Even worse, the happy-go-lucky Man-Sized Wreath is faintly embarrassing, quickly directing itself towards the commode of R.E.M. history with some dreadful funk chords, a few misplaced shouts of “Ow!” and that eternal unspoken sin – a wavering, ever-so-slightly off-key Mills backing vocal. Abominable title aside, lead single Supernatural Superserious is inoffensive enough but possibly the band’s most by-numbers outing to date, offering up the kind of casual toss-off you might get if you gave a guitar to a 10-year-old and asked them to write you an R.E.M. song.

By this point my heart was suffering the same withering palpitations previously reserved for the moment you realise that the stupid bitch stood next to you at the Hyde Park gig is going to talk on her mobile all the way through Nightswimming. However, just when it seems like the band’s revitalisation sounds more like a desperate scrabble for former glories, they turn things around with the simplest about-turn. Drifting in on the subtlest of melodies, Hollow Man quickly bursts into life to deliver the kind of bittersweet, major-minor chord-run that the band does so well. From hereon in, it’s encouragement all the way.

At its best, Accelerate marries Fables-era songwriting to New Adventures bombast. Its title track finds Stipe raising his head and clenching his fists to deliver R.E.M.’s grittiest song since Walk Unafraid. The album’s undoubted high-point, it’s propelled by a skittering drum-loop with gives the track a sense of movement notably absent from the band’s last three records. Lyrically it plays like World Leader Pretend for a Bushwhacked America, articulating a startling recognition that feelings of powerlessness can always be eclipsed by the duelling forces of belief and reckoning. It also contains one of the band’s best-ever soundbites in the form of its blazing central refrain: “Where is the ripchord, the trapdoor, the key / Where is the cartoon escape hatch for me?”

The album’s other two standouts offer similar harks back to past triumphs. The elegant Mr Richards is a switched-on political tract whose liquid guitars and mellifluous double-tracked vocals evoke strong memories of Be Mine. Weighing in equally late in the game, Sing for the Submarine is nothing short of a minor miracle, progressing seamlessly from the tangled claustrophobia of its verses to a giddying waltz before Buck throws down his most inventive piece of guitar-playing since he first e-bowed the letter back in ’97.

That the record closes with the throwaway glam-rock skit I’m Gonna DJ (a daftly likeable track which just about stays the right side of all-out silliness) says much for Accelerate’s admirable couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude. Whereas Around the Sun failed to deliver on its much-vaunted promise of challenging America’s current political standing, Accelerate does exactly what it says on the tin, putting its best foot forward and hoofing it out the gate full of piss and vinegar. It’s an album hinging on the axis of history, determined to stuff the past firmly in a tin-can and drop-kick it out to sea: whereas they’ve spent much of the past decade looking inwards, here the band open up and stare skyward once again as if ready to lead us all into the future. As an album it’s cocky, confident, witty and defiant – the rousing call-to-arms we so wanted them to deliver last time around, and an indication that R.E.M. are still one of the world’s most vital and important bands.

At a mere 35 minutes though it does have a tendency to feel rather slight, and often lacks the light and shade which gave the last three records such depth and intrigue. Equally, its determination to remind listeners they’re still the same band we once fell in love with occasionally deflates the album’s momentum (Until the Day is Done, an otherwise strong track whose lyrics bear comparison to Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, is basically a chord-for-chord retread of Try Not to Breathe). Consequently, Accelerate is a good R.E.M. LP, but not a great one – as intended, it’s exactly the kind of thing they used to knock out every year or so when they came back off tour in the mid-80s. Whether you see that as a virtue or a step backwards very much depends on which side of the two R.E.M.s you fall.