Tuesday, April 1, 2008

REM - "Accelerate" (Warner Bros. 2008)

As you're probably aware, there's an immense amount of hype surrounding the release of this record. So why should an uppity little shit like me bother reviewing it? Well, see if you can make it to the bottom and maybe you'll understand.

In 1986 the only exposure I had had to REM was the video for "Can't Get There From Here" that had been rotating on MTV. I based an assumption that they were a lame new wave band from that song and video and had put them out of my mind with the heaps of other crap being released at the time. In early 1987 it so happened I was in a car with a friend of my girlfriend's brother waiting on somebody one night (don't ask). He popped in a cassette and one of the most searing, honest to God rock 'n' roll songs I had ever heard erupted from the speakers. "Who the fuck is this?" I asked my passing acquaintance. After looking at me like I was a clueless hick dressed up like a punk rocker (let's not explore that too deeply) he answered, "REM". The song was "Begin the Begin" and the album was Lifes Rich Pageant (IRS Records 1986). My opinion of the band changed immediately. I went out and bought everything by them. I had found music that wasn't punk rock but still was the very essence of rock 'n' roll. I only wished (and still do) that I had clued in earlier.

Document (IRS Records 1987) was released later that year and I was again knocked on my ass. This was American post punk. Fuck that - this was American rock 'n' roll combining the most admirable qualities of the music of The 60's and early 70's and updating it through the filter of punk and post punk. And it was from the USA, dammit. It left Springsteen and Johnny Cougar (or whatever the fuck he was calling himself back then) so far back in the dust you could neither see nor give a shit about them. Straight up American rock 'n' roll that didn't suck. In the 1980's. Saints forefend.

Then came the disappointment of Green (WEA 1988). To me, it was downhill from there. The spirit was gone. Michael Stipe's lyrics, always introspective, became self consciously introspective and maudlin. Peter Buck's by turns fiery and beautifully melodic guitar work seemed more and more an afterthought. The music kept getting mellower and more radio friendly. There was the well intentioned attempt to return to rock 'n' roll with 1994's lackluster Monster, but you could tell their hearts weren't in it. More mellow, boring records were to follow. The songs were formulaic and all sounded the same. I gave up. In my mind one of my favorite bands had faded away without even realizing it.

As I was wandering through a certain soulless corporate chain electronic gadgets store in search of a gift today I noticed the last copy of REM's latest, Accelerate, on the best seller rack. What the fuck?, I thought, I'll give it a shot for old time's sake.

I slid the CD into the player in my van not expecting much. What came blasting out of the speakers was one of the most searing, honest to God rock 'n' roll songs I've heard in a long time. Album launcher "Living Well is the Best Revenge" is not only the strongest album opener from REM since "Begin the Begin", it's one of the strongest album openers I can bring to recent memory. Any fears of formulaic repetition are dispelled with the following track, "Man-Sized Wreath" - vintage REM with a hooky verse broken up by some minor key audial weirdness turning around into an anthemic chorus. Track three - immediate guitar hook, great vocal melody, brilliant sing-along chorus.

This is the record that should have followed Document. It's got all the pop hooks, musical experimentalism, esoteric lyrics with a strongly political undertone, and dynamics to spare that characterized the classic years of REM. "Mr. Richards" is reminiscent of "Finest Worksong", building on its intrinsic droning construction, "Until the Day is Done" is mellow and overtly political, "Horse to Water" builds on the choppy verse - smooth, melodic chorus dynamic found in many REM songs and takes the prize for strongest track, "Houston" is odd in that fashion that is uniquely REM.

This might all smack of a nostalgia record - returning to a tried and true formula to shake things up and make some old fans happy. That isn't the case. This album displays a return to the spirit of classic REM, and while they certainly pull some familiar tricks out of the bag, this record sounds as fresh and contemporary as anything out there.

I know all this is much more specific that I tend to get with a record review, but hearing Accelerate was, for me, like finding out a friend you thought was dead is actually alive and well. He's just been missing for 20 years. I had consigned REM to a relic of my youth, and here they come, spinning my head around by proving they still have it in them to be one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands in the world.

Record labels typically generate hype to disguise the fact that they're releasing a weak product upon which they blew the bank. But occasionally, very occasionally, the hype is there because there's a fucking masterpiece worthy of it. I think you've got a pretty good idea of what I think. Go buy it and decide for yourself.

4 out of 4 fables


Jane said...

this is very good news indeed.

MiseryCreek said...

You're telling me. A few more surprises like this in my life and I might not die of a broken heart.