, April 8th, 2008 00:00
In the context of popular music the phrase "return to form" induces clammy dread like few others in the language. The words are an invariable motif of publicity for any album by an artist who is persisting in defiance of ebbing creative and commercial potence, and just as reliably indicate that the record in question is an absolute hound. To illustrate the phenomenon with its most prolific exemplar, every album Prince has released since 1988's Lovesexy has been hailed hither and yon as a "return to form", right up until the point that people heard it.
When those words were first heard in the build-up to this, R.E.M.'s fourteenth studio album, they sounded more than usual like an attempt to wallpaper over rising damp. R.E.M.'s previous outing, 2004's dreary, over-thought Around The Sun, had been the first outright dud of their extraordinary career, widely derided by fans and a usually adoring media, and barely defended by the band. Stipe, Buck and Mills had admitted that they'd pretty much stopped speaking to each other. Any album resulting from such circumstances is usually the work of people who can't quite think of anything else to do with their days, and about as much fun to listen to as reading essays written by students while undergoing detention.
Accelerate, it turns out, is rather better than that. While not remotely comparable with that staggering sequence of albums on which R.E.M. founded their reputation, from 1983's Murmur to 1993's Automatic For The People, Accelerate is nevertheless special. It represents the heartening sound of R.E.M. discarding the trappings of grey-whiskered elder statesmanhood, and reconnecting with the primal joys of playing loud rock'n'roll. The result is that R.E.M. sound more like R.E.M. than R.E.M. have since 1987's Document. Accelerate is slathered with Peter Buck's trademark Rickenbacker arpeggios, iced with Mike Mills' unmistakable soaring backing vocals, and the re-embracing of those much-missed tropes has inspired Stipe to rediscover the angry, betrayed patriot who penned the uplifting invective of 1986's Life's Rich Pageant. The baleful, gorgeous, state-of-the-union address 'Until The Day Is Done' is introduced on the lyric sheet of Accelerate with Sinclair Lewis's suggestion that: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross".
The album's title is apt, given the pervading atmosphere of giddy impatience. 'Hollow Man' starts out as a cousin to 'Nightswimming', a ballad sighed over a piano, but after just 20 seconds Buck's guitar begins pawing the ground, and within 45 seconds it's stampeding through another entry in R.E.M.'s formidable catalogue of ecstatic, Byrds-ian choruses. 'Houston', fairly obviously a narrative of a hurricane-enforced exile from New Orleans, has verses anchored by a knelling keyboard, but choruses decorated with supremely pretty curlicues of mandolin. Even 'Supernatural Superserious', which is reasonably pugnacious at its outset, can't remain content in its groove, and takes flight into choruses as spectacular as anything off Husker Du's Candy Apple Grey. The only misstep is 'Sing For The Submarine', a ponderous, uneventful trudge which, at nearly five minutes, sounds even more unwieldy amidst these frantic surroundings the album's hilariously rocking final two tracks, the Stooges-ish tear-ups 'Horse To Water' and 'I'm Gonna DJ' barely clear four minutes between them.
It has been a long time since R.E.M. should really have felt that they had any need to prove anything. They are, after all, incalculably influential and, it must be assumed, no less wealthy. They also have to know that the chances of them equaling their peaks are remote, as all really great bands are that ineffable bit more than the sum of their parts, and R.E.M. declined irrecoverably with the departure of Bill Berry after 1996's New Adventures In Hi-Fi. But R.E.M. were descending from rarefied heights indeed, and on the evidence of the more full-steam-ahead-and-damn-the-torpedoes moments of Accelerate, they haven't fallen nearly so far as one might have thought. A return, it could be said, to form.