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Accelerate Andrew Mueller , April 8th, 2008 00:00

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REM - Accelerate

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.

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David Schwarm
Apr 15, 2008 12:56pm

Sell outs.

Simple. Clearly defined. Every generation has examples.

REM are Sell Outs. Capital S. Capital O.

A "Return to Form" for a Sell Out is a continued compromise of values. A continued betrayal. But really, who cares?

It was a long time ago. Things have changed. It really is only about the music and not about the band. Other simple justifications come to mind.

In fact, I really don't care at all anymore.

Which is largely the point.

I seriously doubt that readers of The Quietus are making the majority of their musical selections at Starbucks. I seriously doubt the readers of this site are going to forgive Michael Stipe anytime soon and return to Shiny Happy People, well, happy. So why repeat A&R bullshit? Did we go to SXSW to see REM?

Why write this review? No one who is listening is reading, and no one who is reading is listening?

And then The Quietus bags on Joy Division?

A band I love. A band that I still need to share with the rest of the world because I simply know that if everyone listened the world would be a better place. A band that I own every single record, CD, and most of the DVD's and am GLAD that I do.

A band that did not sell out. Would not sell out. Could not sell out.

We love REM?
We mock Joy Division?

What are we doing?

This is not off to a good start.

Thanks, David S

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John Doran
Apr 15, 2008 1:19pm

No one is mocking Joy Division. Go back and read the feature more closely.

Personally I hate R.E.M. and love Joy Division but would rather have my opinions challenged. By reading only what we already know/believe we end up with a tired, toothless music press that is just an adjunct to the PR industry.

You're an adult; you can stand to read some 'controversial' but well expressed viewpoints that differ from your own.

Respctfully, this is not only a good start but an essential start.

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Apr 20, 2008 12:15am

I too am somewhat surprised to see this particular album here. On my radar it falls hard and fast between the "ironic pop idolatry" of guilty pleasures like a Beyonce album, or more to the point - Rihanna - but absolutely outside the "credible return" of, say - Portishead.

I like Michael Stipe. He's a superfreak, he does Good Things like put his money into hopelessly noncommercial films and broadly worthy causes. In the guise of REM he even makes magnificent, if ultimately impotent, stabs at supporting the "underground" of music (see recent Q covermount). I consider him OG, in punk terms. When I was a sniveling shit of an editor of an unworthy fanzine in Philly 1000 years ago, he not only sent me the band's self-released first single to "review", but he spoke to me on the street. I had a (much) later encounter with him which proved to me that he STILL was a human being, after all. A true gentleman who still appreciates a favour.

However, despite all of this, I have to concur with Schwarm (not least because of the similarity in our surnames) on the point of REM being a big S to the E to the L to the L out, but you know... a disappointment, musically, by and large.

Not that I want my Quietus to be yet another narrow-minded guardian of hip... but you know, should we not be exercising some editorial restraint?

Then again, nothing like a good row to get the blood flowing.

Well done.

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Jun 22, 2008 2:51pm

i/met a boy/wearing Vans/501s/Beastie tee/nipple ring/new tattoo/who said that he/was ogt/back in 92/from the first ep/and in between/sips of Coke/he told me/he thought we/were selling out/laying down/sucking up/to the man

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Jun 19, 2008 5:15pm

I'd just like to say, I completely and totally hate when anyone callas a band a "sell out". Criticizing a band for anything other than, y'know, their music is nothing but pretentious wankery.

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Jun 29, 2008 1:57pm

Selling out doesn't exist. It never has, never will. There is no such thing as selling out. Period.

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Deb Concord
Jul 15, 2008 2:18am

Yeah really it sounds like some people here equate "selling out" with "growing up," or "not dropping dead." Ian Curtis is fucking DEAD, that's a convenient place from which he can't sell out, isn't it? So is REM to be thought pathetic because they didn't die and didn't hate on each other (like Morrissey and Marr)? How do you have any idea what kind of music (if any) Ian Curtis would have been making if his career had last 28 years instead of like THREE?

I saw REM four times in 1983-4. They were as phenomenal as any band will ever be in their prime. Nobody's the same at 49 and 21, and should they be?

It's hard to compete with Chronic Town-Murmur-Reckoning-Fables-Pageant/Document/Green/Out of Time/ Automatic, that's FOR SURE. REM has absolutely nothing to prove, but they are still having fun and they're not dead yet, sorry to disappoint y'all.

Deb, same age as Stipe, sick of people who think musicians should stop or die in their 20s

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May 30, 2010 8:47am

In reply to Deb Concord:

excellent comment.

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