By Chris Moore:
RATING: 5 / 5 stars
Raw energy, often the domain of a young band, is that elusive intangible that surges and passes and that, even when it is present, cannot always be tamed. Sadly, it can be lost in veteran bands, and replaced though it may be with the polished products that come with years of practice, it is a poignant loss.
On Accelerate, R.E.M. recaptures this element for the first time in years with some of the most engaging recordings of their career. Considering that their discography stretches a quarter of a century across fifteen studio albums, it is significant to claim Accelerate as one of the strongest albums in the R.E.M. catalog.
And it is.
Barely passing a half an hour in length, Accelerate — true to its name — attacks numerous focal points in politics and society with distortion guitars and biting lyricism. Somehow, the band manages to strike a balance across the eleven tracks, including slower, more introspective tracks like “Until the Day is Done” and “Hollow Man” in what is otherwise a full-on alternative rock assault.
A less seasoned band might have forgotten to take the time to breathe.
The aforementioned tracks are not the standouts, but they are the pillars of the album. “Until the Day is Done” is a thinly veiled protest song, thumping out the thematic pulse of the album as a whole. Michael Stipe sings of “an addled republic, a bitter refund” and warns that “the verdict is dire, the country’s in ruins.”
Written near the end of George W. Bush’s time in office, Stipe’s references are crystal clear. How have we responded to our state of affairs? “We’ve written our stories to entertain these notions of glory and bull market gain.” He goes on to conjure an Orwellian society as he sings, “An easyspeak message falls into routine.”
This is a stark vision, punctuated as it is with the self-doubt of questions like “What have I done?” and “Where are we left to carry on until the day is done?”
Lest this album be represented as preachy or whiny, it stands to be noted that there is just as much self-reflection woven into these tracks. Consider “Hollow Man,” a song which finds Stipe reflecting on “saying things I didn’t mean and don’t believe.”
The voice that Stipe takes on here is one quite familiar to many individuals in a modern age driven by so-called ideals of productivity and consumerism: “I’m overwhelmed, I’m on repeat. I’m emptied out, I’m incomplete. You trusted me, I want to show you I don’t want to be the hollow man.” It might be easy to overlook the reflective aspects in Stipe’s lyrics amidst the more scathing remarks, yet the album’s greatest strength is its balance between pointing out external as well as internal inconsistencies and failings.
Taking this heart on one’s sleeve approach into consideration, these two tracks in particular, may serve to bring the remaining nine tracks even more sharply into focus.
“Living Well is the Best Revenge” is an excellent opening track; the instrumental components are reason enough to set this song on repeat, driven as it is by Peter Buck’s gritty guitar parts, Mike Mills’ frenetic bass line, and Bill Rieflin’s breakneck pacing on drums. Stipe’s vocals set the tone for the other songs to come, spewing out lines about poison spinning into “the life you’d hoped to live” and lashing out with epithets like “you weakened shill.” Likewise, “Living Well is the Best Revenge” serves up the first round of religious allusions, Stipe singing of lambs to slaughter, “sad and lost apostles,” and asking “the gospel according to…who?”
This is followed up by “Man-Sized Wreath,” which boasts lyrics on par with the best Stipe has ever written. The song opens with a continued reference to the media (think: “camera three” from the previous track, in addition to numerous later lines), “Turn on the TV, what do I see? A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me, wow.” It would seem from these lines that the “man-sized wreath” is the metaphor for those news anchors and other television personalities who contribute their “empty gestures” to the “pageantry” of the boob tube.
Later, Stipe sings that our “judgement [is] clouded with fearful thoughts,” but by the end of the song, he asserts that “I am not deceived by pomp and odious conceit.” This song could be a call to buck the system – “Throw it on the fire, throw it in the air; kick it out on the dance floor like you just don’t care” — or a tongue in cheek request to join in the “festivities” that so many seem so comfortable to be a part of — “Give me some…”
Either way, there is something quite sad about the way in which Stipe states, “I’d have thought by now we would be ready to proceed.”
It doesn’t get much darker than three tracks later on “Houston,” as they kick off the song with an opening organ barrage that sounds like a cross between industrial noise and a funeral dirge. Stipe fires off with “If the storm doesn’t kill me, the government will,” although he quickly adds, “Gotta get that out of my head.” For all his harsh words, there is still hope and beauty in the places that Stipe sings of — Texan cities: coincidence? — as he clarifies that the “meaning has not been erased.”
By “Mr. Richards,” the frustration lurking underneath “Houston” is directed at one man, to whom Stipe asserts, “You can thump your chest and rattle, stand in front of your piano, but we know what’s going on… we’re the children of the choir.” This is a shift from the perspective of “Man-Sized Wreath” — whereas before it was Stipe against the world, now it seems that there is a sense of unity with his audience. Mr. Richard’s “camp moved on” and “the public’s got opinions,” “we’ve begun to bridge the schism.”
Progress is being made.
Stipe is practically cheery by the next track, “Sing for the Submarine,” reassuring that “It’s all a lot less frightening than we would’ve had it be.” Here, “lift[ing] up your voice” is the way to fight the machine: “we’ll pick it all up and start again.” Still, the instruments and even Stipe’s vocal delivery belies the hope expressed in his words: the drums plodding, the bass playing ominous, and the guitar haunting.
In “Horse to Water,” Stipe notes, “I could have kept my head down. I might have kept my mouth shut… You lead a horse to water and you watch him drown.” This firmly establishes “Horse to Water” as a statement on the album as a whole, particularly with Stipe following up in the chorus by singing, “It’s not that easy. I am not your horse to water. I hold my breath, I come around, round, round.”
In the special edition lyric booklet, a full two page spread is devoted to the final line of the song: “this run around… IS BOUND TO POUND THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF YOU.” Bottom line? The state of affairs that Stipe and company have cut a path through to expose and expound on are very real. Earlier, on the title track, Stipe sings, “I’m not alone, a thousand others dropping faster than me,” so Accelerate is clearly an album that calls for community.
It is primarily an album that digs into the uglier aspects of our private lives and the least sunny undercurrents of our society, and yet does so with a sense of unabashed honesty and even, at times, levity. Take the single “Supernatural Superserious,” which deals with identity via the metaphor of the “humiliation of your teenage station.” “I’m Gonna DJ” is only the second outstanding end-of-the-world rocker that R.E.M. has cooked up, and it’s perfectly placed as the closing track.
It’s saying something when a song about the end of the world is a welcome, light respite from the topic matter of the first ten tracks.
Throughout, R.E.M. succeeds in handling the topic matter with the perfect sound and a fitting sense of the greater scheme of things. Even the booklet is branded with the caption “This book will fall apart.” Aside from the fact that they’re not kidding (seriously: it’s tied together loosely with some thin thread), this is a nuanced manner of adding to the overall theme of decay.
The chorus of the title track, itself situated at the heart of the album, says it best: “Where is the rip chord, the trap door, the key? Where is the cartoon escape hatch? No time to question the choices I make. I’ve got to fall in another direction. Accelerate.” The message seems clear enough, a call for change that is desperately needed. Read this as you will, either as a personal statement or as an indictment of the nation. Regardless, the determination to be realistic and forthcoming is a quality we all too often lack when faced when crises come creeping into our lives.
It is human to see “the future turned upside down” and it is oh so very Prufrockian to “hesitate.”
If I read Stipe right, hesitation simply is no longer an option. The solution seems to be to change direction and… you guessed it: accelerate.