r.e.m. - accelerate

.:: In the decade since the departure of drummer Bill Berry, R.E.M. could seem at times schizophrenic. Their albums of the era, which veered from the experimentalism of Up and reaffirmation of Reveal to 2004's more diffuse, reflective Around the Sun, often stood in stark contrast to the vibrancy of their live act. But here the alt-rock godfathers have resolved that dichotomy with their most focused and satisfying album in over a decade; a collection that doesn't so much revisit the bracing ethos of the band's '80s coming-of-age, as boil it down to its essence and supercharge it with the energy of their contemporary stage shows.

That sensibility is evident from the opening track, "Living Well's the Best Revenge," where Peter Buck's aggressive, distortion-drenched riffs and Michael Stipe's gruff snarl set the tone for "Mansized Wreath," "Horse to Water," and "Supernatural Serious"; rockers that bristle with the abandonment and aggressive energy of a band half their tenure. Yet it's no mere blast-from-the-past. The inclusion of the band's recent touring musicians (Scott McCaughey on second guitar and drummer Bill Rieflin) into the session mix, as well as working out much of the material live onstage in Dublin, has yielded something more sonically akin to R.E.M. 2.2.

Stipe's penchant for the lyrically opaque has been largely supplanted by an edgy, articulate passion that variously explores "Houston'"s displaced Katrina refugees, the bluegrass-tinged "Until the Day is Done," and the more typical, quiet self-examination of "Hollow Man," before exploding in the album's unlikely, upbeat elegy "I'm Gonna DJ," where singer and band find renewed hope in not only music, but themselves.

.:: Accelerate is the first studio album by that post-Berry stage band, and it is one of the best records R.E.M. have ever made. Much of Accelerate was cut in live-band takes and even tested onstage during a run in Dublin last summer, and it shows. Guitars are front and center, in slashing-chord and rusted-arpeggio crossfires, as if you've got R.E.M.'s 1982 EP Chronic Town and the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks spinning in your CD tray at the same time. "Man-Sized Wreath," "Supernatural Superserious" and "Horse to Water" rattle and zoom like buried treasures from an old club-tour set list. And there is nothing soft or shy about the slower darkness either. In "Houston," a stark snapshot of post-Katrina exile ("If the storm doesn't kill me/The government will"), crude fuzz drones and ham-fisted organ chords roll over Buck's acoustic guitar and the fighter's will in Stipe's voice ("I was taught to hold my head high. . . . Make the best of what today has") like oily floodwater.

But the R.E.M. on Accelerate is also the one I saw at New York's Madison Square Garden right after 2004's Vote for Change Tour — and two nights after Bush's re-election. Bummed but unbowed, they opened the show with loud, fast defiance — "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" — and they do the same thing here, with "Living Well Is the Best Revenge." "Don't turn your talking points on me/History will set me free/The future is ours, and you don't even rate a footnote," Stipe sings in a rapid, ecstatic near-shout over flying fists of guitar and racing bass and drums. And that's just the start of the blowback. "Nature abhors a vacuum/But what's between your ears?" he snaps in "Man-Sized Wreath," a bitter laugh at empty pomp and sound-bite patriotism, aimed at sheep and herders alike. And whoever "Mr. Richards" is, he gets his just desserts — "Mr. Richards, your conviction/Had us cheering in the kitchen" — served with Buck and McCaughey's bristling-glam guitars.

Stipe has not sounded this viscerally engaged in his singing and poetically lethal in his writing since the twilight of the Reagan administration. But he is not merely protesting the mess of the nation. Accelerate is total-victory rock, Stipe making promises he knows he can keep — "You weakened shill . . . Savor your dying breath" ("Living Well") — because he's not alone. The apocalypse is obvious in "Sing for the Submarine," an urban-holocaust update of Crosby, Stills and Nash's hippie-escape plan "Wooden Ships." So is the strength in numbers. "It's all a lot less frightening/Than we would've had it be," Stipe insists, as Mills swoops way behind him in guardian-angel harmony. (Mills' vocals, too often taken for granted, are frequent literal high points on the album, the reassuring sunlight on Stipe's gritty delivery.) And in "Hollow Man," Stipe concedes his own needs and fuck-ups, then calls for help — "Corner me and make me something" — in a stunning mix of tender-piano ballad and big-guitar chorus that sums up the commitment that makes true loves, democracies and great rock bands possible.

Ultimately, the best thing about Accelerate is that R.E.M. sound whole again, no longer three-legged but complete in their bond and purpose. "Music will provide the light you cannot resist," Stipe crows at the end of the record, in the atomic frivolity of "I'm Gonna DJ." And you can believe him — because he and his band believe in themselves again. -- rolling stone

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