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Here and now

R.E.M.’s ‘back-to-basics’ disguise
By BRETT MILANO  |  March 24, 2008

VIDEO: R.E.M., "Supernatural Superserious"

When “Supernatural Superserious” — the advance single from R.E.M.’s first studio album in four years, Accelerate (Warner Bros.) — was released on-line last month, the song got pegged in various reviews: it was a Velvet Underground cop, it was Michael Stipe getting sensitive again, it was a conscious throwback to early R.E.M. You could make a case for all three. But “Supernatural Superserious” is something else as well, something far more profound, something that announces itself from the opening chords: it’s “Louie Louie.” True, no band ever made a late-career statement of purpose just by quoting “Louie Louie” — but it never hurts.

And Accelerate is very much a statement of purpose — an inspiring, open-hearted record disguised as a bunch of back-to-basics rock songs. In both mood and sound, it harks back to Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) — the first R.E.M. album to include political songs, and the first to abandon jangle for a fuzzier guitar sound. (Certain Accelerate songs recall Lifes Rich Pageant — particularly “Until the Day Is Done,” which could be “Swan Swan H” and “Flowers of Guatelama” mashed together.) The comeback buzz on Accelerate began before the album was even recorded, much less released — just as it had with R.E.M.’s previous album, the false-alarm Aroundthe Sun. Sure enough, Rolling Stone just gave the new album a comeback-type review, and Spin slapped the word “resurrected” on its current R.E.M. cover story.

There really wasn’t anything to resurrect, however: R.E.M.’s only real crime in the past decade has been to make albums that don’t sound great at first listen — or even the fifth — but reveal themselves over time. And that’s enough to lose an audience in the era of single-track downloads and iPod shuffles. It’s been years (eight, to be precise) since a major band (Radiohead) have gotten away with an audience-confounding album (Kid A). R.E.M. made two in a row with Up (1998) and Reveal (2001) — releases whose slow tempos and oblique structures alienated the mass following the band had garnered a decade earlier. It took the Rhino/Warner reissue series three years ago to compel a re-evaluation of those albums — especially the lovely Reveal, which now sounds like an homage both to prog-rock and to the Southern Gothic tinge R.E.M. had explored in the past. (The tired-sounding Around the Sun remains a full-fledged dud.)

Accelerate requires no effort at all to appreciate. Recorded mostly live and sounding like it, this one turns R.E.M. back into a guitar band, flies by in less than 35 minutes, and seems unforced in a way their last “back to rock” album, 1994’s Monster, didn’t. A product of the grunge era, Monster had intensity but very little joy. Accelerate has plenty of joy. The McCartney bass lines that Mike Mills throws into “Man Sized Wreath,” Peter Buck’s rediscovery of the fuzzbox, and the willfully silly “I’m Gonna DJ” all attest to a band who’re enjoying themselves again.

Yet you don’t sense the whole point is to turn back the clock. Take away the requisite anti-Bush lyrics (and the related “Houston,” about a Katrina exile) and Accelerate is largely about staring down a midlife crisis. Parts of the disc seem pitched to a certain audience — people with romantic associations of R.E.M. from their college-radio days who are now checking back in. “Sing for the Submarines” courts that audience by working a batch of old R.E.M. titles into the lyrics, and by adapting a warm Beatlesque sound. It works because Stipe sounds as down-to-earth as he ever has, and because the reassurance he offers seems honest. It’s an obvious topic for R.E.M. to write about as the members hover around 50, just as the rocking tone of Accelerate is an obvious move at this point. Sometimes the obvious can be a beautiful thing.

Related: R.E.M., Déjà vu, The Fleshtones, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Entertainment, Music, Music Reviews,  More more >
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