New Adventures in Hi-Fi came out a whopping 12 years ago. Until last Tuesday, it was R.E.M.'s last really good album. While better off than U2 (who haven't put out a good album since Achtung Baby in 1992), I, and many other fans, worried that the band I loved would never return.
But now the boys are back with Accelerate, the disc that promises to return R.E.M. to the throne. Wiping clear the mess left behind by 2004's Around The Sun and, to a lesser extent, 2001's Reveal, the middle-aged alt-rockers have traded in mellow piano for brash guitars and mid-tempo ballads for fast-paced youthful howls.
Clocking in at just over a half hour, Accelerate is one of the shortest albums in the band's catalog. But I think that's part of the beauty of Accelerate. The album kicks off strongly and keeps its momentum throughout the whole disk without resorting to filler.
The sense of urgency and strength is helped along by singer Michael Stipe, who gets straight to the point. There are angry, political rock songs, relationship songs and Stipean waxes on human nature without the massive amount of filler that plagued previous albums. Accelerate gives us Stipe as we've scarcely seen him before -- aggressive, growling and bold. While it belies the gentler image that he's cultivated, the tone of Stipe's lyrics fits the album perfectly.
Stipe's raging vocals are matched by the tense, snarling quality of guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills' instrumental work. On R.E.M.'s previous two albums, Buck had been largely relegated to mellow, barely-there melodies. On Accelerate, Buck reasserts himself in a big way with fuzz-augmented guitar licks. Mills, who had spent more time at the piano bench than hoisting an axe on the past two records, anchors songs with the type of strong, forceful rhythms more akin to the Hold Steady than adult alternative.
On top of being an all-around high quality album, Accelerate also has a good volume of catchy, single-quality tracks. The album's first radio single, "Supernatural, Superserious," features all the feel-good sing-a-long magic expected of the group, while "Horse To Water" and title track "Accelerate" can be pegged for the next singles off the album.
For all my raving, Accelerate isn't R.E.M.'s best album. It's probably not even in the top third (they've got 14 of them, so climbing to the top of the heap is harder than it sounds).
What Accelerate is is a reassertion of R.E.M. as a vital and living force on today's music scene. It's a step in the right direction after losing their way for about 10 years. Even almost 30 years into their career, R.E.M. is still innovating. They've had their lulls, but with Accelerate, they've proven that they can still recover and make a mighty fine rock record.