Ask a hard core R.E.M. fan about the band’s last decade of recordings and you hear mixed reviews and a sense of disappointment. When the band’s drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997 you would think, based on some of the grumbling, that he took the quartet’s testosterone with him. That might be an unfair accusation but R.E.M., in search of its new identity as a trio, did take some unusual side roads through big production country and psychedelic self-examination.
Accelerate should appease those fans who loved the early, stripped down, rapid fire delivery of that young start-up band from Athens, Georgia. From the opening track Stipe, Buck and Mills prove that they are more than capable of chewing up and spitting out 3 minute rockers that will up the sweat factor in the mosh pit. “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” reverberates with flying buzz guitar, pounding bass, percussion and serious indignation. Stipe rips his adversaries – you decide who he’s singing about – with “don’t turn your talking points on me/history will set me free/the future is ours and you don’t even rate a footnote.” The second track, “Man-Sized Wreath,” clocks in at just over 2 and ½ minutes and features one of the band’s best hooks in many an album.
“Supersnatural Superserious” is a great rock song that, 10 years ago, would have been all over rock radio. Its infectious melody and easy sing-along bridge make it a likely contender to become a concert favorite. At the forefront of R.E.M’s aural attack is Buck’s signature “arpeggio” guitar riffs that crisscross and slash against Stipe’s urgent calls to action. It’s no secret that what drives this album is the band’s anger towards America’s current cultural and political atmosphere. “Houston” is a slam on the Bush administrations response to Hurricane Katrina. “If the storm doesn’t kill me/ the government will,” Stipe sings, backed by acoustic guitar and organ. “Until the Day is Done” is accompanied in the liner notes by quotes from Upton Sinclair and William S. Burroughs offering warnings of governmental betrayal and the dangers of religious patriotism.
It might have taken the last decade of change in America to stoke the fire that burns in the heart of Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck. If you’re looking for the silver lining in the bad news then maybe the fact that one of rock’s best bands has been reinvigorated by the mayhem will offer a ray of hope. It’s small but welcome comfort in the maddening fray.