When R.E.M. released their marauding and cumbersome 2004
album, Around the Sun, longtime fans of the band wound up in a position
akin to that of one of the disc’s representative tracks, “Boy in the
Well.” Listeners who were emotionally invested in a band they had heard
out-rock and out-create many of its contemporaries for years were forced to let
the authorities come in and remove R.E.M. from a prison built of its own
post-Bill Berry flaws, as they were helpless to assist. And in this case, the
authorities were the critics, bashing with their pens a band that helped define
what true art means. It’s not that Around the Sun is without merit,
because it does have some strong moments as any R.E.M. output will, but the
disc lacked the tension, dynamism and downright griminess of the Athens, Ga.,
quartet’s fabled I.R.S?days.

Fortunately, the best jangle-pop band this side of the
Atlantic has come back from a newsworthy stint in their stylistic pit with
energy, noise and songwriting prowess to spare. Accelerate?may not
be R.E.M.’s masterpiece, but it’s everything fans and critics alike could want
from a band that is finally taking its age in stride without forgetting the
alt-rock vigor that made it great in the first place.

R.E.M. blasts into action with the opener “Living Well
is the Best Revenge,” throwing down more fervent beats and crunching
guitars than they’ve used on their last two albums combined. Lyrically, the
song is just philosophical enough to recall the pensive tone of Green,
incorporating theological imagery but abruptly undermining it with the ironic
line: “Well, I forgive but I don’t forget.”

And “Man-Sized Wreath” follows, feeling just as
mentally deep, but it lightens up its heavy political messages with the
harmonies and production value of Monster‘s best tracks.

Single “Supernatural Superserious” consolidates
R.E.M.’s return to form in one tightly constructed song, exploring the
emotional weight of memory through a tale of teenage angst. The radio-friendly
piece is built around one dramatically simple riff of distorted chords and a
few simple harmonies. When the track’s instrumentation and vocals cut out for a
few bars midway through, Accelerate finally proves that R.E.M. knows when
to keep it simple and turn up the amps.

But all this energy doesn’t detract from the obvious — and
welcome — age of R.E.M. as a writing and performing band. Vocalist Michael
Stipe’s voice trembles warmly during the touching intro of “Hollow
Man,” setting the tone of the song perfectly for morose confessions of
despair. Each of R.E.M.’s members seems to know exactly what and where their
contributions to Accelerate should be, as each track feels wonderfully
hesitant without sounding amateur or hollow.

Accelerate‘s only glaring flaw is R.E.M.’s tendency
to indulge a taste for confounding symbolic lyrics. “Sing for the
Submarine” literally describes a submarine meant to provide escape from a
dying city, which Stipe revealed in an interview. The track’s tales of Electron
Blue, a drug made of light described in an Around the Sun gem by the
same name, and submarine-rooted solace are difficult to understand without
having them explained by the song’s writer. But regardless of this
imperfection, “Sing for the Submarine” grows on the listener, as do
many of the songs on this vision-inspired collection.

As a whole, Accelerate is an album of rebirth and
revitalized intent. R.E.M. can write whatever kind of music it wants, whether
that be sickly sweet pop ballads or the fiery post-punk inclined folk of
“The One I Love.” But the album’s title track makes it clear that the
band has abandoned its seeming midlife crisis for a sometimes faster but always
fresher sound. R.E.M. obviously felt some inspiration when recording their
newest, and sing authoritatively, “No time to question the choices I make,
I’ve got to follow another direction.”

Whether or not Accelerate‘s sound will be repeated on
later releases or is just a fleeting fancy, R.E.M. is back. They may not have
pulled a Radiohead and redefined rock again, but that isn’t what these aging
innovators are going for. They’re just aiming to please. And this time fans
don’t have to wait longingly for R.E.M. to hit the studio again. Instead, they
can enjoy the garage-band homage of a band remembering how good it feels just
to have fun.

Want to hear samples of R.E.M.’s “Accelerate”?
Visit wsum.net/podcast to listen to Episode 1 of Arts-On-Air, presented by WSUM
and The Badger Herald.

4 stars out of 5