RATING: 4.5 / 5 stars
By Chris Moore:
Sometimes, the big publications just get it all wrong.
In his Rolling Stone review of R.E.M.’s Live at the Olympia in Dublin, Will Hermes writes, “This two-CD/one-DVD document captures intimate, occasionally great performances.” He goes on to add, “If Michael Stipe sometimes sounds like he’s reading lyrics off his computer, it’s because, well, he actually was.”
If I have to read one more cleverly phrased review bestowing a mediocre rating upon a release I love, I swear I’ll lose it.
Live at the Olympia in Dublin spills over with positive energy, the kind of energy that leaves fans breathless and voiceless after a night of singing, screaming, and giddily laughing. Stipe’s voice is hardly robotic, as Hermes might have you understand. His vocals alternate between smooth and clear deliveries at some points, alternately cracking in all the right places at others.
And the computer is hardly a crutch. It’s more a means of on-stage schtick for Stipe and the band. It is apparent that he is getting a kick out of reading others’ interpretations of his eighties-era, admittedly very mumbled lyrics. (He has since come over to the good side, including lyrics in all R.E.M. booklets since Up.)
And it’s genuinely funny to hear him reading them, reflecting on them, and moving on to the present day, namely his evolved sensibilities and more recent material.
What really gets me is that Hermes refers to the tracks I had most looked forward to — the Accelerate outtakes — as “solid.” This is an overstatement. I was far from impressed with the outtakes, and although I had so hoped to tout them as the forgotten gems of their 2008 sessions, I simply had to admit to myself, Well, I suppose these guys knew what they were doing when they assembled Accelerate.
And that is precisely what has renewed my interest in R.E.M. I’ve always liked Stipe’s attitude, and I’m continually drawn to R.E.M.’s unique, raw-but-refined instrumental sound. And yet I’ve been hard-pressed to find any albums that stand out to me, certainly not enough to stand up to some of the great albums of all time.
Then, along came Accelerate.
Their 2008 studio album — their fourteenth at that — is a tremendous record. There are catchy electric hooks, acoustic underpinnings, great lyrics, and Michael Stipe’s perfectly ragged vocals seasoning and binding it all together. What truly distinguishes this record is the energy that simply oozes from the seams. And this doesn’t come across as some aging group of rock and rollers embarking on a pitiful attempt to recapture past heights — after all, R.E.M. never was known for being all that rocking a band.
Watch the music video for “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” and you’ll immediately observe the youthful, creative force of a group of men who love what they do. The song is performed while driving around in a car, acoustic guitars squeezed into the small vehicle, the steering wheel converted — while driving, mind you — into the percussion instrument of choice. It looks like they’re having a lot of fun, and that comes through more than anything else on the record.
Rolling Stone reviewer Hermes apparently longs for the days when “Stipe’s vibrato-seizure vocals and Rorschach-blot ‘lyrics’ clung to songs exploding at the seams.” He comments that, instead, “The stitching is tighter now, and drummer Bill Rieflin often holds things together too neatly.”
Say what you will about Rieflin’s drumming — and it’s not groundbreaking or award winning, but it gets the job done. I draw the line at his allusion-dropping, not-so-subtle riff on Stipe’s vocals, as if to imply that something has been lost.
If that’s true, then something has been lost on me.
R.E.M., as Live at the Olympia in Dublin continues to suggest, is more alive and well than they have been in a good long time. If living well is truly the best revenge, then Stipe, Mills, and Buck are bound to have the last laugh. Their on-stage personas, musical chemistry, and ability to dig deeply into their catalog to populate their shifting set lists — never mind their willingness to exercise their unfinished work during live, recorded performances — continue to breathe new life and vibrancy into all their work, both past and present.
If you’re ready to live in the moment, then you should really give these guys a listen.