XXIII. The Double Edged Sword Of Being Great For A Long Time

R.E.M. Returns With A Masterpiece That Hardly Anyone Will Buy, Listen To, Or Care About.

Rock and Roll, whatever that is, is dead.

But because nothing else has come along that’s any better at making dreams feel as though they can actually come true, or helping to fill the day with a good tune strung across a driving beat conjuring any number of thoughts about driving down the highway with the top down, beautiful girls, or even the real meaning of life, whatever that is, the great practitioners of Rock and Roll, who are still alive, continue to practice. What else is there to do?

Rock and Roll wasn’t conceived or invented to support twenty plus year careers. The average lifespan of a Rock and Roll band that actually gets noticed, signed, puts a record out, tours, etc. is about fifteen minutes. Achieving major public success as a Rock and Roll band is as rare as catching a falling star in your hand, swallowing lightning, walking on the moon, discovering water on Mars, what have you. The luckiest of all who find superstar status with audiences that decide to embrace their work for a prolonged period of time eventually have to deal with the sobering concept that everyone gets older, real life fills up their days and nights, and people stop listening to music and start doing other things instead.

I don’t know of anybody over forty years old who buys music. And given the rigor mortis that has set in these days in the music industry because of file sharing and an over-stimulus of information at large, not too many people of any age are buying music anymore. It’s over. And this is sad, because R.E.M. has just put out their best album since Automatic For The People and only a hundred thousand or so human beings will ever have paid money to own it. And those who don’t pay money to own it will most probably pass on it as well. And that’s a real shame, because Accelerate is great, and even more importantly, it rocks.

R.E.M. came to be at the dawn of the 1980’s, built a devoted following through grass roots touring and never compromising the quality of anything they did in order to achieve a hit record, a place on MTV or a sold out arena. All these things came anyway, for that very reason. Their popularity peaked in the early ‘90’s with the twin masterworks of Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, and then, having achieved that rarest of stature, Rock Perennial (reserved for the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Stones and U2), they went on creating highly unique and challenging records, always defying categorization, always staying true to whatever path they were on at that moment. It became a given that R.E.M. stood for quality and originality, and in a sad twist of irony, this gradually lessened the eventfulness of every subsequent R.E.M. release. Anyone who gave a damn just assumed the new R.E.M. record would be great. But being great for a long time, it seems, is a double edge sword. The notion of greatness was overtaken by the notion of expected competence.

The band then suffered an almost insurmountable loss with the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997, proving without doubt they were indeed a real BAND from the outset, the whole always greater than the sum of its parts. In the wake of Berry’s retirement, the remaining three members, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck, soldiered on, but appeared shell-shocked, and if it was even possible, got weirder and more idiosyncratic with the release of 1998’s Up. While there were moments of beauty and emotional resonance on it, Up was the first R.E.M. album that sounded mostly tired and in many instances, boring. The wind had been knocked out. This was sleepy music.

To make things worse, the Zero Decade, and let’s be honest, that’s exactly what it has turned out to be musically speaking, has not been as kind to R.E.M. as the two previous ones were. Up was received coldly and floundered, the same fate befalling its supposedly much-improved follow-up, Reveal, some three years later. And then, they made the most asleep album of their career, the earnest, but unfocused Around The Sun. Not an up-tempo song in the bunch, just moderately pretty meanderings by a band that sounded as if it was just killing time, aping Sunflower-era Brian Wilson, and waiting for some real inspiration to strike once again.

It was time for R.E.M. to speed things up and thank goodness for that, because Accelerate is a speedy, shiny, noisy pop-rock gem from start to finish, the strongest set of songs they’ve written since 1992, and the best all-out rocking album they’ve ever made. This distinction previously went to their 1986 classic Lifes Rich Pageant, which until now, along with Automatic For The People, was my favorite R.E.M. album of all.

Of the eleven songs on Accelerate, only the epically beautiful “Sing For The Submarine” lasts beyond four and a half minutes, most are three minutes or less, and seven of them are balls-out, joyously up-tempo Rock and Roll. Everything there is to love about R.E.M. is here. Michael Stipe’s uncanny gift for making familiar melodic ideas seem totally fresh and new, a facet of the band that has laid dormant for more than a decade, is mixed to the fore with his beautiful, smoky, hum-of-the-universe voice taking center stage proudly, a verve and confidence in his singing that’s been somewhat diluted since 1994’s Monster. He sounds like an artist reborn, his lyrics here among his very best, each song carrying distinct ideas and points of view about the state of the union and the State of the Union, all communicated with terrific turns of phrase, at points funny, at others, heartbreaking. And like Bruce Springsteen on his Magic album, Stipe has achieved that tricky task of combining the personal and the political in each song, where it can be about either or both at the same time. For the lyrics, melodies and singing alone, Accelerate is a major event and one of Michael Stipe's finest hours.

But R.E.M. is a band, and without Mike Mills’ brilliant bass playing and background singing, and Peter Buck’s truly inspired guitar playing, Michael Stipe would have no stage to shine on so brightly. Mike Mills has always been R.E.M.’s secret weapon, a bass player and background vocalist of tremendous taste and melodic invention, the alternative kid brother of Paul McCartney or Sting. Since the creative breakthrough of 1991’s Out Of Time, Mills has morphed into the band’s John Paul Jones, orchestrating their records with gorgeous keyboard textures that could be best described as Chamber Pop Music. This hit pay dirt on Out Of Time, Automatic For The People, and the marvelous “Tongue” from Monster, but started to increasingly backfire on Up, Reveal and Around The Sun, the arrangements of which acquiring an air of pomposity usually reserved for Progressive Rock Bands, something that never occurred in R.E.M.’s music before. Many of the songs on these more recent albums sound like Michael Stipe wearily or clumsily grafting lyrics and melodies to pieces that would have fared better staying Mike Mills instrumentals. With Accelerate, Mills is firmly back on bass and counterpoint vocal, the place he began his time in the band at, and he sounds better and stronger than ever. On the couple of songs that incorporate his excellent keyboard work, the parts are subtle and effective, supporting the song, instead of being the song. Mike Mills continues to be Rock’s hidden treasure.

Even more significant, though, than Stipe or Mills’ achievement here is that of guitarist Peter Buck, the great unsung guitar hero of Rock and Roll. This is a guy who very late in the game, in the face of the towering inventions of Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eddie Van Halen, came up with his own inimitable style of playing the defining Rock instrument. Of his peers, only Andy Summers and The Edge can say the same. And the best of Nirvana and Radiohead flows directly from his achievement. On the first five R.E.M. albums, Buck created an alternative vocabulary for Rock Guitar, based on the beautiful arpeggios of mid-sixties Beatles and Byrds, but incorporating the drive and brashness of Punk. When you hear the introductions to songs like “Fall On Me,” “Talk About The Passion,” or “So. Central Rain,” you know it’s R.E.M. because of the guitar playing, that’s how identifiable his style is. As the band evolved, with Mike Mills occupying more and more of the sound landscape, Buck branched out too, incorporating mandolin and other exotic sounding stringed instruments, bringing new colors to the canvas, but always staying true to the voice he had initially come up with, the mark of a great artist. Again, like Stipe and Mills, Buck seemed to lose focus over the last few R.E.M. records, as if he was biding time, asleep at the wheel, more noodling around than anything. All three musicians seemed to be going for a mood, not a song, and there’s only so much room for Mood Music in Rock and Roll. I would describe this period as R.E.M. chasing Thom Yorke. But not anymore, because Peter Buck strapped on his guitar, turned it up loud, and wrote some of the best songs of his life for Accelerate. Like The Edge began doing on U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Buck has returned to what made him and his band great in the first place, but not only does he refer back to the greatness of old, he sounds totally new again, pointing firmly and confidently toward the future. Peter Buck is back, and the sound of his guitar and his band is that of very clean, fresh air.

Together, the three partners have crafted an album of bright metallic sunshine hiding some very serious concerns underneath the summery glare. The surfaces are fuzzy, rhythmic and overdriven, but the guts of the thing are the melodies, all of which begin to stick in the head almost immediately. Every song here is delirious with that greatest of all things in music, The Pop Hook. The album opens with the best first three songs R.E.M. has come up with since Lifes Rich Pageant, and all are akin in their rhythm and ferocious sense of fun. “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” does Pageant’s “Begin The Begin” one better with an incessant Peter Buck guitar hook coupled with some of Stipe’s most impassioned political singing. Clearly an indictment of President Bush and all his friends, this is Kick Ass Rock and Roll Music for Now People. The world is in dangerous shape, and R.E.M. isn’t going down for the count that easy. There’s plenty of fight left here and the resulting energy is contagiously euphoric. “Man-Sized Wreath” continues the heady assault with another series of giant hooks, all punk contempt and pop joy, pointed again at the sad parade of political goons that appear to have taken over the world. One of Stipe’s best lyrical twists happens here where he pairs the phrase of “kick it out on the dance floor like you just don’t care!” with “everybody looking like they just don’t care.” The feeling of a social malaise where no one gives a damn and is just happy to party like nothing matters is communicated powerfully here. Michael is shouting at the entire world, get up and do something, start caring, make it better, and it works. The joy of the music allows sentiments like this to come across not as preachy or didactic, but as an impassioned call not only to get up and dance but to get up and take back the power, to make the world better. It’s powerful stuff.

And it only gets better from there with what may be the absolute gem of the record, a fantastic slice of sunshine called “Supernatural Superserious.” The chords, rhythm and melody are classic R.E.M. but again, seem energized and fresh, as Michael sings about the confusion, discomfort and ultimate high and release of being a teenager in discovery mode. It’s clear he’s been listening to Dashboard Confessional and has assimilated Chris Carrabba’s wondrous ethos of teen angst and ecstasy with a heightened appreciation for youth and all the bumps and grinds that come with it. The scene is summer camp, it’s all glands and puberty, embarrassment and humiliation, feeling for love and the organs that transmit it in your own body and the bodies of those other awkward ones around you, all fumbling in the dark for identity and connection. It’s beautiful, yearning and real. “Now there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird,” Michael assures us. “Enjoy yourself with no regrets…Nobody cares, no one remembers and nobody cares…A celebration of your teenage station…Zen experience…sweet delirious…supernatural super serious…Wow…” The empathy is tangible, on par with what he achieved on “Everybody Hurts.” To think that nobody cares or remembers how awkward you were, or how silly or stupid you thought you were at the time, is a liberating thought, and it’s true. No one remembers the past that way, only you in your own insecurity, and you don’t have to. Because it’s ok, everybody hurts, there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird. There’s no need for regret. I know, because Michael Stipe tells me so. He’s always been a gift in this way. “Supernatural Superserious” ranks as one of the all time great R.E.M. moments, and it’s a keeper, a magical trapdoor between a fabled past and some marvelously bright future.

For these three songs alone, Accelerate is a bona fide triumph, but Stipe, Buck and Mills sustain this energy and focus right through to the crashing, hysterical end of “I’m Gonna DJ,” a roof-raiser about the apocalypse if there ever was one. Not since Prince’s “1999” has the end of the world seemed so fun and inviting. And Michael will be spinning all kinds of vinyl for the occasion, so it can’t possibly be that bad, can it? Get your seats now.

It’s not all fun and games, of course, and there are two songs here that lament the State of the Union like few other songs before them. “Houston” takes aim at the state that produced The Bush Regime, and presents a glimmer of hope in an utterly despondent political climate where oil rules and hurricane victims go unconsidered and uncared for. Over a somber Peter Buck acoustic waltz, Stipe intones, “Houston is filled with promise, Laredo’s a beautiful place, and Galveston sings like that song that I loved, it’s meaning has not been erased…” and the effect is chilling. This is our country, and it has been taken and defaced by crooked politicians and industry magnates for too long. Michael Stipe is a proud American and you can feel that when you hear “Houston.” It’s the same feeling you get when you listen to Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen sing about this amazing country they love so much. Incredible pride and incredible sadness. This beautiful song also contains one of the best lyrics ever written:

“Belief has not failed me and so I am put to the test.” This is profound art.

“Until The Day Is Done” is the sister song of “Houston,” lilting and gentle, also in waltz time and the same key, in which good, decent Americans are left to wonder how to carry on with the daily grind of living and making it through every day, while a decrepit leader awakens from his treacherous deeds to ask, “What have I done, what have I done?” Is it too late? asks Michael Stipe. Hopefully not. “Hold tight your babies and your guns,” he advises. It’s tough road ahead. And yet, the tenor of this album is so ultimately hopeful, the overall effect is of reassurance and comfort, joy and solace. Great Rock and Roll from The Beatles, Dylan, and The Who, down through Springsteen and U2, has always granted just that, no matter how dire the subject matter might be. Accelerate finds R.E.M. relishing in this tradition and carrying it forward no matter how dark it appears on the horizon.

And yet, when all is said and done, this fabulous, life-affirming record will hardly make a dent in the public consciousness, will barely be bought or listened to, and will only be remembered by R.E.M. fans as the noisy one from 2008. But alas, it is just too late in these barren times. Indeed, if the boys had put this record out in 1994 instead of Monster, on the heels of the masterstroke that was Automatic For The People, their stock would have gone through the roof and granted them a ten year extension in popularity not unlike what U2 has been enjoying since the release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. But hey, when a great band puts out a record this good, better late than never, I say, and any time is a good time.

Rock and Roll, whatever that is, is dead, but fortunately, R.E.M. doesn’t know it. And may they never find out.



Kick it out on the dance floor like you just don't care.