An interesting question to be sure, but a more interesting question, following Around the Sun four years later, is Accelerate a good R.E.M. album?
In the interest of full disclosure, I fucking love R.E.M. I will take their worst album (Around the Sun – it sucked, but I think Accelerate explains why, partially – more on that in a minute) over many band’s best albums. For instance, the best My Chemical Romance album makes Around the Sun look like The White Album and anyone who tells you different is in My Chemical Romance. I have awaited every R.E.M. album with the utmost expectation and excitement. Usually, I’m rewarded; though the P-forkers like to shit on Up, I thought it was a really good album (“Hope” is still one of R.E.M.’s best songs) and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the album they recorded largely at sound checks while touring for Monster, is one of my all-time favorite rock albums.
And that might explain why I think Accelerate is R.E.M.’s best album since New Adventures in Hi-Fi. If you’ve read an R.E.M. interview in advance of this album, chances are you’ve caught the band admitting that they can really lose their way if left to wander around a studio. Around the Sun took a long time to record and it meanders like a motherfucker – some of the songs are bad, but quite a few would be salvageable if someone had come along to Stipe, Mills, and Buck and said, “Look, stop fiddling with all those knobs and play your fucking instruments. Seriously, you’re a rock band. Act like it.” The other thing that sunk Around the Sun (and to some extent, Reveal) is a little thing I’ll call Post-Bill-Berry Syndrome. Since Berry left following his aneurysm (which the dude came through with some amazing fucking grace, if you’ll recall; talk about earning your retirement), it seems like the remaining members of R.E.M. were hesitant to put drums on their albums. Yes, there are drums on the albums, but not like there are on Life’s Rich Pageant, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, or even Automatic for the People. R.E.M. had become drum-shy.
Accelerate fixes both of those problems. Bill Rieflin has been drumming on tour with R.E.M. and doing a bang-up job of it. On Accelerate, R.E.M. allowed him to have the same presence he has in their live sets, and it pushes the album into places that R.E.M. needs to go: namely loud places. So Accelerate is a no frills (or few frills), no mandolins, brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit affair. And that’s good news for those who might approach it with some trepidation following R.E.M.’s last couple of outings.
The album opens with “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” and it signifies the return of both drums and fun to the world of R.E.M. (not to dwell on it, but Around the Sun was so deadly fucking serious!). Yeah, Michael Stipe is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more, but more important than the specific politics of the song (one can easily imagine it being directed at anyone in our current administration or any of their talking head right wing supporters) are the musical politics of the song. Loud-ass, fast, loose rock ‘n’ roll is a statement of personal liberation and thus, all good, loud rock ‘n’ roll is political. Period. It’s a lesson not lost on R.E.M. this time ’round; most of the songs are political, short, and loud. It’s hard to get too specific with a lot of the songs, which is a good thing. If you look back to the best R.E.M. stuff from the 80’s, there’s evocative imagery, but it’s opaque enough and allows the listener to fill in the gaps. I mean, yeah, “Exhuming McCarthy” is about Reagan, but it’s a great song because I can still listen to it today and say, “Shit. That song is about George W. Bush.”
So the songs blaze by, full of loud Peter Buck guitars (he’s really an under-rated player; there are very very few guitarists in rock who know how to play just enough. Peter Buck is a blue-collar guitar hero – he comes to work, punches in, kicks ass, goes home. Learn from this, aspiring guitar players!) and those awesome Mike Mills backing vocals. I missed those. Mills has a great voice for singing back-up and harmonies; probably he wouldn’t carry a band as a lead singer, but he’s a deeply talented musician who adds a lot of texture to this band.
So let’s talk about “Mr. Richards,” one of my favorite songs on the album. At first blush, it could be read very specifically – i.e., there is a Mr. Richards that really exists that the song is really about. You might, on first listen, think it’s about Mr. Michael Richards who tried to shock and awe some people at a comedy club by shouting racial slurs. But the more you get into it, you realize that you can indict anyone in a song called “Mr. Richards.” Richard is a common name and if you’re really familiar with a Richard, you might abbreviate his name. To what? To Dick, of course. So is the song about Dick Cheney? Or his pal Scooter Libby (“your conviction had us cheering in the kitchen”)? The answers are yes and yes. Because what do you call a feckless fuckhead who’s gone ’round ruining everything for years? A dick! So Bush is a Mr. Richards, Libby, all those dicks are Mr. Richards. Plus the syllables of the name fit the rhythm of the song wonderfully.
Is Accelerate the greatest album of all time from one of my favorite bands ever? No. But it’s a damn fine rock album and the band sounds as excited/exciting as their live shows are (seriously see this band live if you get a chance). It’s a hopeful thing for me, because if your favorite band hangs around long enough, they’re gonna start sucking. Ask any honest fan of the Rolling Stones (i.e. the ones that won’t pay to see them in concert now). But it’s a great thing to see that R.E.M. still has a spark in ’em; Accelerate is a helluva ride. Now, if Elvis Costello can win me back later this month, why, I’ll just be the happiest little music snob in America, won’t I?