Rock and Roll, whatever that is, is dead.
But because nothing else has come along that’s any better at making dreams feel as though they can
actually come true, or helping to fill the day with a good tune strung across a driving beat conjuring any number of thoughts
about driving down the highway with the top down, beautiful girls, or even the real meaning of life, whatever that is, the
great practitioners of Rock and Roll, who are still alive, continue to practice. What else is there to do?
Rock and Roll wasn’t conceived or invented to support twenty plus year careers. The average lifespan
of a Rock and Roll band that actually gets noticed, signed, puts a record out, tours, etc. is about fifteen minutes. Achieving
major public success as a Rock and Roll band is as rare as catching a falling star in your hand, swallowing lightning, walking
on the moon, discovering water on Mars, what have you. The luckiest of all who find superstar status with audiences that decide
to embrace their work for a prolonged period of time eventually have to deal with the sobering concept that everyone gets
older, real life fills up their days and nights, and people stop listening to music and start doing other things instead.
I don’t know of anybody over forty years old who buys music. And given the rigor mortis that has set
in these days in the music industry because of file sharing and an over-stimulus of information at large, not too many people
of any age are buying music anymore. It’s over. And this is sad, because R.E.M. has just put out their best album since
Automatic For The People and only a hundred thousand or so human beings will ever have paid money to own it. And those who
don’t pay money to own it will most probably pass on it as well. And that’s a real shame, because Accelerate is
great, and even more importantly, it rocks.
R.E.M. came to be at the dawn of the 1980’s, built a devoted following through grass roots touring
and never compromising the quality of anything they did in order to achieve a hit record, a place on MTV or a sold out arena.
All these things came anyway, for that very reason. Their popularity peaked in the early ‘90’s with the twin masterworks
of Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, and then, having achieved that rarest of stature, Rock Perennial (reserved
for the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Stones and U2), they went on creating highly unique and challenging
records, always defying categorization, always staying true to whatever path they were on at that moment. It became a given
that R.E.M. stood for quality and originality, and in a sad twist of irony, this gradually lessened the eventfulness of every
subsequent R.E.M. release. Anyone who gave a damn just assumed the new R.E.M. record would be great. But being great for a
long time, it seems, is a double edge sword. The notion of greatness was overtaken by the notion of expected competence.
The band then suffered an almost insurmountable loss with the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997, proving
without doubt they were indeed a real BAND from the outset, the whole always greater than the sum of its parts. In the wake
of Berry’s retirement, the remaining three members, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck, soldiered on, but appeared
shell-shocked, and if it was even possible, got weirder and more idiosyncratic with the release of 1998’s Up. While
there were moments of beauty and emotional resonance on it, Up was the first R.E.M. album that sounded mostly tired and in
many instances, boring. The wind had been knocked out. This was sleepy music.
To make things worse, the Zero Decade, and let’s be honest, that’s exactly what it has turned
out to be musically speaking, has not been as kind to R.E.M. as the two previous ones were. Up was received coldly and floundered,
the same fate befalling its supposedly much-improved follow-up, Reveal, some three years later. And then, they made the most
asleep album of their career, the earnest, but unfocused Around The Sun. Not an up-tempo song in the bunch, just moderately
pretty meanderings by a band that sounded as if it was just killing time, aping Sunflower-era Brian Wilson, and waiting for
some real inspiration to strike once again.
It was time for R.E.M. to speed things up and thank goodness for that, because Accelerate is a speedy, shiny,
noisy pop-rock gem from start to finish, the strongest set of songs they’ve written since 1992, and the best all-out
rocking album they’ve ever made. This distinction previously went to their 1986 classic Lifes Rich Pageant, which until
now, along with Automatic For The People, was my favorite R.E.M. album of all.
Of the eleven songs on Accelerate, only the epically beautiful “Sing For The Submarine” lasts
beyond four and a half minutes, most are three minutes or less, and seven of them are balls-out, joyously up-tempo Rock and
Roll. Everything there is to love about R.E.M. is here. Michael Stipe’s uncanny gift for making familiar melodic ideas
seem totally fresh and new, a facet of the band that has laid dormant for more than a decade, is mixed to the fore with his
beautiful, smoky, hum-of-the-universe voice taking center stage proudly, a verve and confidence in his singing that’s
been somewhat diluted since 1994’s Monster. He sounds like an artist reborn, his lyrics here among his very best, each
song carrying distinct ideas and points of view about the state of the union and the State of the Union, all communicated
with terrific turns of phrase, at points funny, at others, heartbreaking. And like Bruce Springsteen on his Magic album, Stipe
has achieved that tricky task of combining the personal and the political in each song, where it can be about either or both
at the same time. For the lyrics, melodies and singing alone, Accelerate is a major event and one of Michael Stipe's finest
But R.E.M. is a band, and without Mike Mills’ brilliant bass playing and background singing, and Peter
Buck’s truly inspired guitar playing, Michael Stipe would have no stage to shine on so brightly. Mike Mills has always
been R.E.M.’s secret weapon, a bass player and background vocalist of tremendous taste and melodic invention, the alternative
kid brother of Paul McCartney or Sting. Since the creative breakthrough of 1991’s Out Of Time, Mills has morphed into
the band’s John Paul Jones, orchestrating their records with gorgeous keyboard textures that could be best described
as Chamber Pop Music. This hit pay dirt on Out Of Time, Automatic For The People, and the marvelous “Tongue” from
Monster, but started to increasingly backfire on Up, Reveal and Around The Sun, the arrangements of which acquiring an air
of pomposity usually reserved for Progressive Rock Bands, something that never occurred in R.E.M.’s music before. Many
of the songs on these more recent albums sound like Michael Stipe wearily or clumsily grafting lyrics and melodies to pieces
that would have fared better staying Mike Mills instrumentals. With Accelerate, Mills is firmly back on bass and counterpoint
vocal, the place he began his time in the band at, and he sounds better and stronger than ever. On the couple of songs that
incorporate his excellent keyboard work, the parts are subtle and effective, supporting the song, instead of being the song.
Mike Mills continues to be Rock’s hidden treasure.
Even more significant, though, than Stipe or Mills’ achievement here is that of guitarist Peter Buck,
the great unsung guitar hero of Rock and Roll. This is a guy who very late in the game, in the face of the towering inventions
of Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eddie Van Halen, came up with his own inimitable style of playing
the defining Rock instrument. Of his peers, only Andy Summers and The Edge can say the same. And the best of Nirvana and Radiohead
flows directly from his achievement. On the first five R.E.M. albums, Buck created an alternative vocabulary for Rock Guitar,
based on the beautiful arpeggios of mid-sixties Beatles and Byrds, but incorporating the drive and brashness of Punk. When
you hear the introductions to songs like “Fall On Me,” “Talk About The Passion,” or “So. Central
Rain,” you know it’s R.E.M. because of the guitar playing, that’s how identifiable his style is. As the
band evolved, with Mike Mills occupying more and more of the sound landscape, Buck branched out too, incorporating mandolin
and other exotic sounding stringed instruments, bringing new colors to the canvas, but always staying true to the voice he
had initially come up with, the mark of a great artist. Again, like Stipe and Mills, Buck seemed to lose focus over the last
few R.E.M. records, as if he was biding time, asleep at the wheel, more noodling around than anything. All three musicians
seemed to be going for a mood, not a song, and there’s only so much room for Mood Music in Rock and Roll. I would describe
this period as R.E.M. chasing Thom Yorke. But not anymore, because Peter Buck strapped on his guitar, turned it up loud, and
wrote some of the best songs of his life for Accelerate. Like The Edge began doing on U2’s All That You Can’t
Leave Behind, Buck has returned to what made him and his band great in the first place, but not only does he refer back to
the greatness of old, he sounds totally new again, pointing firmly and confidently toward the future. Peter Buck is back,
and the sound of his guitar and his band is that of very clean, fresh air.
Together, the three partners have crafted an album of bright metallic sunshine hiding some very serious concerns
underneath the summery glare. The surfaces are fuzzy, rhythmic and overdriven, but the guts of the thing are the melodies,
all of which begin to stick in the head almost immediately. Every song here is delirious with that greatest of all things
in music, The Pop Hook. The album opens with the best first three songs R.E.M. has come up with since Lifes Rich Pageant,
and all are akin in their rhythm and ferocious sense of fun. “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” does Pageant’s
“Begin The Begin” one better with an incessant Peter Buck guitar hook coupled with some of Stipe’s most
impassioned political singing. Clearly an indictment of President Bush and all his friends, this is Kick Ass Rock and Roll
Music for Now People. The world is in dangerous shape, and R.E.M. isn’t going down for the count that easy. There’s
plenty of fight left here and the resulting energy is contagiously euphoric. “Man-Sized Wreath” continues the
heady assault with another series of giant hooks, all punk contempt and pop joy, pointed again at the sad parade of political
goons that appear to have taken over the world. One of Stipe’s best lyrical twists happens here where he pairs the phrase
of “kick it out on the dance floor like you just don’t care!” with “everybody looking like they just
don’t care.” The feeling of a social malaise where no one gives a damn and is just happy to party like nothing
matters is communicated powerfully here. Michael is shouting at the entire world, get up and do something, start caring, make
it better, and it works. The joy of the music allows sentiments like this to come across not as preachy or didactic, but as
an impassioned call not only to get up and dance but to get up and take back the power, to make the world better. It’s
And it only gets better from there with what may be the absolute gem of the record, a fantastic slice of
sunshine called “Supernatural Superserious.” The chords, rhythm and melody are classic R.E.M. but again, seem
energized and fresh, as Michael sings about the confusion, discomfort and ultimate high and release of being a teenager in
discovery mode. It’s clear he’s been listening to Dashboard Confessional and has assimilated Chris Carrabba’s
wondrous ethos of teen angst and ecstasy with a heightened appreciation for youth and all the bumps and grinds that come with
it. The scene is summer camp, it’s all glands and puberty, embarrassment and humiliation, feeling for love and the organs
that transmit it in your own body and the bodies of those other awkward ones around you, all fumbling in the dark for identity
and connection. It’s beautiful, yearning and real. “Now there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird,”
Michael assures us. “Enjoy yourself with no regrets…Nobody cares, no one remembers and nobody cares…A celebration
of your teenage station…Zen experience…sweet delirious…supernatural super serious…Wow…”
The empathy is tangible, on par with what he achieved on “Everybody Hurts.” To think that nobody cares or remembers
how awkward you were, or how silly or stupid you thought you were at the time, is a liberating thought, and it’s true.
No one remembers the past that way, only you in your own insecurity, and you don’t have to. Because it’s ok, everybody
hurts, there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird. There’s no need for regret. I know, because Michael
Stipe tells me so. He’s always been a gift in this way. “Supernatural Superserious” ranks as one of the
all time great R.E.M. moments, and it’s a keeper, a magical trapdoor between a fabled past and some marvelously bright
For these three songs alone, Accelerate is a bona fide triumph, but Stipe, Buck and Mills sustain this energy
and focus right through to the crashing, hysterical end of “I’m Gonna DJ,” a roof-raiser about the apocalypse
if there ever was one. Not since Prince’s “1999” has the end of the world seemed so fun and inviting. And
Michael will be spinning all kinds of vinyl for the occasion, so it can’t possibly be that bad, can it? Get your seats
It’s not all fun and games, of course, and there are two songs here that lament the State of the Union
like few other songs before them. “Houston” takes aim at the state that produced The Bush Regime, and presents
a glimmer of hope in an utterly despondent political climate where oil rules and hurricane victims go unconsidered and uncared
for. Over a somber Peter Buck acoustic waltz, Stipe intones, “Houston is filled with promise, Laredo’s a beautiful
place, and Galveston sings like that song that I loved, it’s meaning has not been erased…” and the effect
is chilling. This is our country, and it has been taken and defaced by crooked politicians and industry magnates for too long.
Michael Stipe is a proud American and you can feel that when you hear “Houston.” It’s the same feeling you
get when you listen to Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen sing about this amazing country they love so much. Incredible pride
and incredible sadness. This beautiful song also contains one of the best lyrics ever written:
“Belief has not failed me and so I am put to the test.” This is profound art.
“Until The Day Is Done” is the sister song of “Houston,” lilting and gentle, also
in waltz time and the same key, in which good, decent Americans are left to wonder how to carry on with the daily grind of
living and making it through every day, while a decrepit leader awakens from his treacherous deeds to ask, “What have
I done, what have I done?” Is it too late? asks Michael Stipe. Hopefully not. “Hold tight your babies and your
guns,” he advises. It’s tough road ahead. And yet, the tenor of this album is so ultimately hopeful, the overall
effect is of reassurance and comfort, joy and solace. Great Rock and Roll from The Beatles, Dylan, and The Who, down through
Springsteen and U2, has always granted just that, no matter how dire the subject matter might be. Accelerate finds R.E.M.
relishing in this tradition and carrying it forward no matter how dark it appears on the horizon.
And yet, when all is said and done, this fabulous, life-affirming record will hardly make a dent in the public
consciousness, will barely be bought or listened to, and will only be remembered by R.E.M. fans as the noisy
one from 2008. But alas, it is just too late in these barren times. Indeed, if the boys had put this record out in 1994
instead of Monster, on the heels of the masterstroke that was Automatic For The People, their stock would have gone through
the roof and granted them a ten year extension in popularity not unlike what U2 has been enjoying since the release of All
That You Can’t Leave Behind. But hey, when a great band puts out a record this good, better late than never, I
say, and any time is a good time.
Rock and Roll, whatever that is, is dead, but fortunately, R.E.M. doesn’t know it. And may they never