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R.E.M.- Accelerate (Album Review)

There comes a point in any established band’s career when looking backwards seems to be the only possible way to move forwards. When they entered the studio last year to make their 14th album with producer ‘Jacknife’ Lee, REM were effectively a busted flush. They had lost their way around the turn of the millennium, a fact made inescapable by the abundance of lacklustre songs littering their last two albums. Anyone who heard ‘Wanderlust’, which sounded like a tribute to the Wonder Stuff, could only marvel at how far they had fallen.

There comes a point in any established band’s career when looking backwards seems to be the only possible way to move forwards. When they entered the studio last year to make their 14th album with producer ‘Jacknife’ Lee, REM were effectively a busted flush. They had lost their way around the turn of the millennium, a fact made inescapable by the abundance of lacklustre songs littering their last two albums. Anyone who heard ‘Wanderlust’, which sounded like a tribute to the Wonder Stuff, could only marvel at how far they had fallen.

Accelerate, then, is the album REM had to make if they were to retain any sense of purpose. It’s blissfully short and sharp – 11 songs in less than 35 minutes – and cannot help but re-ignite memories of a time when they were the torchbearers for American alternative music in its mid-Eighties prime.

Beginning with the ‘Just a Touch’-like fervour of ‘Living Well is the Best Revenge’, it’s full of little nods and winks of affirmation to the long-suffering fan, intent on marrying Reckoning’s liquid guitar pop to the more mature crunch of Life’s Rich Pageant. From the ringing riff that pops up halfway through ‘Hollow Man’ to Michael Stipe once again feeling ‘gravity’s pull’, throughout REM explicitly acknowledge the bittersweet reality of their predicament: after 25 years of record-making, returning to somewhere close to where they started is now all people really require of them.

They duly oblige. Ditching the mid-paced piano-led confections of recent times, they instead bring back to the fore Peter Buck’s primitive guitar lines and Mike Mills’s endlessly inventive bass playing and high, keening harmonies. Any danger of dutiful self-parody, however, is blown away by the conviction of the performances and the strength of the songs. Crucially, a reinvigorated Stipe has relocated both his sense of mischief and his ability to write a melody that doesn’t evaporate as soon as it hits the air. ‘Man-Sized Wreath’ is big, bold and brilliant, while ‘Supernatural Superserious’ is their finest single in a decade, a crunching, sing-along hymn of teenage empathy. Best of all is ‘Horse to Water’, a galloping Proustian rush straight into the heart of 1984, which rather improbably features Stipe caught in the crossfire of a ‘Friday night fuck-or-fight pub crawl.’

This youthful swagger reaches its zenith on ‘I’m Gonna DJ’, a consciously dumb-ass V-sign to mortality, but Accelerate isn’t all about mapping out some foot-to-the-pedal second adolescence. ‘Mr Richards’ is a lovely slice of druggy, droney late Sixties pop, while both ‘Houston’ – two exceedingly dark minutes of muttered paranoia – and the minor-key ballad ‘Until The Day I Die’ recall the battered acoustic beauty of Automatic For the People. Only ‘Sing for the Submarine’ makes any claim to epic status, slowly shifting up through the gears as it twists and turns into a beautifully realised lament for something that’s ‘destroyed then built again,’ but even then there are no ostentatious production flourishes.

Accelerate isn’t that kind of record. Instead, it’s mostly fast and unfussy, convincing and committed. For those of us certain that the fire had gone out completely following the insipid Around the Sun, it provides a stirring, joyous rebuke. The inescapable side effect, of course, is that in the process of reminding us what a great band they can still be, REM also remind us what a truly phenomenal band they once were. This far down the line, that’s probably the best anyone can expect.