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April 10, 2008

Shortcuts—R.E.M.'s Accelerate

[img id="80457" align="alignleft"] Few aging bands so plainly advertise their method of redeeming themselves after a string of lackluster albums as R.E.M. The 28-year-old band spells it out right in the title of their new disc: Accelerate. Clocking in at a blistering 35 minutes, Accelerate is a juggernaut of an album that, if it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, still augers better things to come.

With Jackknife Lee—who also produced U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which did for that band what Accelerate does for R.E.M.—at the helm, the band dispenses with the dirge-like ballads and listless guitar solos of their past albums in favor of a volatile concoction of silvery guitar arpeggios, punky basslines, and galvanic drum patterns. The latter are the handiwork of R.E.M.’s new drummer, Bill Rieflin, who injects some life into a band clearly stunted by the loss of its original skinsman, Bill Berry.

The first track, “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” brilliantly showcases their newfound energy; the intro sounds more like The Sex Pistols than anything else. The effect of this song in light of R.E.M.’s last three albums is comparable to that of “Helter Skelter” on the White Album—wow, what the hell was that? Taking its title from an epigram by an English clergyman and metaphysical poet George Herbert, the song blasts the Bush administration. “History will set me free/ The future is ours and you don’t even/ Rate a footnote,” singer Michael Stipe screams at neo-conservative “sad and lost apostles.”

This mixture of hope and disgust for the state of the union forms the dominant theme of “Mr. Richards,” a mid-tempo, droning track about a statesman with a “narrow lack of vision.” “Houston,” a beautiful song about displaced Katrina victims, features acoustic guitar, fuzz-toned electric guitar, and an apocalyptic organ in a bitter and redemptive waltz. “Man-Sized Wreath” rips into patriotic pomp: “Turn on the TV, what do I see?/ A pageantry of empty gestures/ All lined up for me, wow.” None of this hand-wringing and parodying is particularly daring at this late date, but most of it is quite well done.

Some of the other tracks hit a more personal note. “Supernatural Superserious” sounds almost like it could lead the soundtrack of Shrek IV with its bright, choppy chord progression—except the lunchbox set might not be thrilled with a chorus that reads, “Yeah you cried and you cried.” “Hollow Man” enjoyably combines an earnest piano ballad with jaunty light rock, though its lyrics are almost unremittingly bleak: “Believe in me/ Believe in nothing/ Corner me and make me something/ I’ve become the hollow man.” The title track, which I suspect is about a person in the one of World Trade Center towers on 9/11 (or maybe I’m reading into the lyrics a bit wildly), grips you with grave urgency and doesn’t let go.

R.E.M. can’t maintain the ineluctable momentum it builds up with the first few tracks, though. “Until the Day is Done” strives for something like Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” but, like some of Dylan’s songs, loses itself in overwrought lyrics and a monotonous melody. Plus, the lyrics come with two epigraphs in the liner notes—one by Sinclair Lewis and another by William S. Burroughs. That’s just needlessly pretentious. “Sing for the Submarine” is a pleasing but forgettable post-urban disaster song, while the last track, “I’m Gonna DJ,” fails completely to pump you up like the first three tracks with its asinine refrain of “Music will provide the light/ You cannot resist!” Apparently I can—when it comes to this stinker.

Warts and all, Accelerate is by far R.E.M.’s strongest offering in years and should satisfy anyone’s thirst for literate yet easy-to-digest rock ’n’ roll. And Jackknife Lee should receive some special award for getting decadent 20-year-old bands off their asses and back into the business of serious music-making.