Thursday, March 27, 2008

R.E.M. / "Accelerate"

The first time I heard “Accelerate” in its entirety, I absolutely loved it. Track for track, it is easily the best album they’ve released since the criminally-overlooked masterpiece “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”. While the fan in me listened excitedly to the album, the critic in me reminded me not to get hasty. After all, it’s easy to get over-enthused and write off emotions when an artist you love comes back with a work that reminds you why you loved them to begin with (Brian Wilson’s “Smile” and Joe Strummer’s “Streetcore” come to mind). The fan in me was ready to declare this the album of the year; the critic in me is not ready to concede that yet, but is fully willing to embrace the album.

"Accelerate" errupts out of the gate with rocker "Living Well's the Best Revenge". Peter Buck tears away at a hard guitar riff as Michael Stipe establishes a tone for the album with opening line "it's only when your poison spins into the life you'd hoped to live". Similar to their IRS-era work, on "Accelerate" the band soundtracks often dark lyrics with energetic and memorable hooks and melodies. The first three songs all fall well into this mold, and perform with ease the difficult task of finding balance between emotional power and pop listenability (video). "Hollow Man" starts slower, as Stipe sings over minimal arrangement "I've been lost inside my head" before exploding into a radio-ready pop refrain. The song's sonic transitions are sometimes too quick and thus a little jarring, but overall it's a fine song though some of the song's lyrical power is mitigated by the upbeat rhythms and melody of its refrain.

The first real gem is the fifth track, "Houston". "If the storm doesn't kill me the government will" begins Stipe, before the song builds into an attempt to find the good in the world. Stipe asserts he will "make the best of what today has" before finally conceding in the track's closing lines "belief has not filled me, and so I am put to the test". These closing remarks leave the listener enticed, curious as to what will come next. While meditation on the previous song continues, the album's title track rushes in with the guitar and pace of the earlier songs on "Accelerate". The song is again effective, although it's placement after "Houston" could be seen as somewhat of a sequencing error. It closes with tremors of feedback and the opening acoustic guitars of "Until the Day is Done" shine like rays of light through the clouds.

"Until the Day is Done" marks the high-point of the album. "The battle's been lost, the war is not won" cries Stipe. The line initially appears a literal critique of the Iraq War, but as he continues "the verdict is dire, the country's in ruins" it becomes a metaphor of failure for the administration as a whole. By the end of the song, Stipe questions "where are we left to carry on?" As the situation in Iraq has no end in sight and over 4000 casualties, the economy sits in recession, and society clamors for change, his sendiment echoes that of the public as a whole giving the song a more harrowing and powerful quality. It's emotional power resonates even greater because of its subdued musical approach. "Mr. Richards" follows as another political track, and agains delivers scathing lyrics such as "you're mistaken if you think will just forget". As Stipe continues "you can thump your chest and rattle... but we know what's going on" it's difficult to assert if Mr. Richards represents a political figure or if he is similar to 'Mr. Jones' from Bob Dylan's brilliant "Ballad of a Thin Man" in that he represents anyone who refuses to acknowledge their surroundings. Either way, it's a thought-provoking and well-executed track.

The band returns to rockers with "Sing for the Submarine" and the gloriously loud and distorted "Horse to Water". The latter is as heavy as nearly anything off of "Monster". The album closes with "I'm Gonna DJ". "Death is pretty final" remarks Stipe in the song's opening line, before continuing "I'm gonna DJ at the end of the world". These should hint to you the black humor which makes up a majority of the song. It's a fun, smile-inducing rocker to be sure, but it's not the same quality as many of the other songs on the album and thus isn't necessarily the best closing track.

Still, if I'd been told six months ago that my biggest complaint about R.E.M.'s latest album would be that the closing track is only above-average compared to the nearly across-the-board quality of the ten tracks preceeding it I wouldn't have believed it. R.E.M. are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they have arguably the most impressive catalogue of any band to come out of the college rock era of the 1980's, and they have a worldwide following of millions of fans. They didn't have anything to prove to anyone. Yet they still delivered one hell of an album just to prove they could. Let me be one of the many to offer my thanks.

Rating: 8.6


CoachDub said...

I wait on the edge of my seat for your review. Meanwhile, you can check mine out!

Kid C said...

All apologies for the two-day delay. I'm sure my millions of readers were dying in anticipation :P

Josh said...

whattadya think about where to start with bonnie prince billy erik

Erik said...

"I See a Darkness" is his definitive album. It's probably in my 5-10 all-time favorites at this point. Then I would actually check out his release under the moniker Palace Brothers called "Viva Last Blues". After that, both "Master and Everyone" and "The Letting Go" are very good albums. I love Will Oldham. I'm glad you're getting into him!

Tom said...

speaking of bands you like, im pretty sure bon iver is playing here soon.

also i apologize for never getting back to you regarding meshugga, the truth is im extremely unfamiliar with their stuff and i was gonna listen to some, but never got around to it. its still on my list though.