If you can’t be right, be wrong at the top of your lungs. That’s a Charles Schulz nugget, expressed by Lucy, and it translates into rock terms as, When in doubt, crank the amps. This is the philosophy behind R.E.M.’s new album, Accelerate, their best, and certainly their loudest, in years. But the songs are something less than free-wheeling. Like Bruce Springsteen’s Magic and the last two studio albums from U2, Accelerate is a conservative play, a record that is extroverted and un-complicated and attempts to reestablish a classic sound. After driving themselves bonkers in the studio trying to outdo their back catalogue and significantly winding down their once-massive popularity in the process, R.E.M. wants to be loved again.
The band’s long, agonizing slide toward has-been-dom dates to 1998, when they released the first of three fussed-over, downbeat albums. The music on the first two, Up and Reveal, wasn’t so much bad as simply uninviting, oblique songs that depended on a level of intense curiosity from their fans that just wasn’t there. But whatever people thought of it, they had to admire the band’s perseverance. Both records seemed like honest mid-life attempts at reinvigorating the youthful, collaborative friendships that the band had been founded on. Their lives had diverged; they had all left Athens, to one degree or another, and drummer Bill Berry had dropped out. But they remained intensely loyal to one another. They weren’t merely a corporate entity that kept going for the sake of T-shirt sales; nobody went out and recorded a solo album. Though they’d lost something of their chemistry, their faith in sorting it out together was noble, and an old fan, even one who never forgave them for that 1991 MTV stink bomb “Shiny Happy People,” couldn’t help but root for them.
Then came the crisis. Eclipsed by Radiohead as the reigning art-rock band of the era, R.E.M. went about mimicking Radiohead’s fanatical recording techniques—studying each song, dissecting it, reconstituting it, doing it over and over again, more like mad scientists than musicians. The joyless and tuneless result, 2004’s Around the Sun, was the lowest point in their career; worse, the process almost fractured the band. Guitarist Peter Buck, a self-styled rock aficionado who writes three-minute songs faster than it takes to play them, had had just about enough.
So in the name of self-preservation, R.E.M. turned Accelerate entirely over to him, or at least to his passions. Many of the songs are built around Buck’s garage-rocky chord changes, a big, unyielding sound that forces the rest of the band to make adjustments. Holding his own against Buck’s wall o’ guitars, Stipe hews to the lower registers of his range, using his voice bluntly, threatening at times to bust into full Eddie Vedder mode. The lyrics are his usual mish-mash of opaque existentialism, but they lose a bit of their appeal when he barks them. Mike Mills, meanwhile, whose gentle vocal harmonies are the real hooks of the band’s classic songs, gets sidelined. He’s always in the mix—when you hear him on the peppy single “Supernatural Superserious,” it’s like, “Ahh, yes, that is R.E.M.”—but every song is so crowded sonically that his contributions end up buried. Not so the contributions of their non-member drummer, Bill Rieflin, who is front and center, pounding away feverishly on every track.
What’s strange about this direction is that for all their many gifts, R.E.M. were never very good at rocking out, at least not on record. They were too cerebral, too smart for it. They preferred to take rock songs apart. While their post-punk contemporaries slammed away at guitars, Buck broke chords down into arpeggios—the jangle in jangle rock—while Stipe and Mills turned the melodies inside out. It wasn’t that they couldn’t let it rip occasionally—1985’s Lifes Rich Pageant has a couple of awesome rock songs. But when the band tried to make a rock statement, like on 1994’s Monster, they sounded like impostors.
They’re better at it now. What they’ve surrendered in tonal elegance they’ve made up for in raw energy and vigor. And it certainly sets the band up nicely for another triumphant world tour or two. The unfair question is how long anybody will want to listen to these songs beyond the initial “Wow, better than I expected,” and my bet is, not very. R.E.M. have shown themselves to be a capable rock band, but in their prime, they were a much better un-rock band, and those songs still cast an inescapable shadow.