A few months ago, bassist Mike Mills told Rolling Stone that he believed “people are ready to like R.E.M. again.” It’s a statement that effectively summarizes everything that’s right and wrong about the iconic band’s 14th album, Accelerate.
With Mills, guitarist Peter Buck, and frontman Michael Stipe all pushing 50, it’s more than a little naive to expect R.E.M. to suddenly recapture the adventurous spirit of their ’90s heyday, let alone the raw energy and mystery of the I.R.S. years. Nonetheless, for about a decade now, that has been the overriding plea from the peanut gallery—a return to form from the slick, slow-motion affairs of the group’s last three albums (none of which were as bad as you’re supposed to think they were).
On the surface, Accelerate appears to be the long-awaited response to these demands. The emphasis on mood, subtlety, and texture has been axed in favor of the axe—loud guitars, big riffs, rapid-fire rock ’n’ roll. Buck appears to be an active component in the band again, Mills’ harmonies soar, and Stipe is audibly hopping mad like the young punk he once was. There’s political dart-throwing (“Man-Sized Wreath,” “Houston”), teen angst (“Supernatural Superserious”), and even one of those “end of the world” jams (“I’m Gonna DJ”). It’s everything we, the R.E.M. faithful, have been pining for. And yet, somewhere in the middle of the celebration, a sense of suspicion starts to emerge. Is this really a great band happily reconnecting with each other and their grittier roots? Or is Accelerate the sound of an aging act caught behind the eight ball?
After the critical and commercial failure of the overproduced 2004 album Around the Sun, R.E.M. found itself at yet another career crossroads. In the past, they took such opportunities to do whatever they wanted. This time they hired hot-shot producer Jacknife Lee (U2, Green Day) and quickly recorded the straightforward, guitar-heavy, radio-ready album everyone else wanted them to make.
Does it work? Sometimes. The fact is, critics often seem to decide they’re ready to embrace a great artist again, independent of whether the performance has warranted it. This is especially true when the artist does exactly what the critics have been screaming for. Even if the songs are only so-so, and the energy seems a tad by-the-numbers, the band was only doing what you asked. And to criticize that would be equivalent to admitting one’s own foolishness—something no self-respecting critic or R.E.M. fan seems willing to do at the moment.