When their original drummer, Bill Berry, quit in 1997,R.E.M. became more than “a three-legged dog,” as singer Michael Stipefamously put it at the time. Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassistMike Mills actually turned into a pair of trios, two very differentbands, for the next ten years. One was the studio R.E.M. of Up, Revealand Around the Sun: wounded but determined, making a stately, reflectivepop rich in psychedelic luster and heavy with ballads about faith anddoubt. Then there was the concert R.E.M. Armed with longtime secondguitarist Scott McCaughey and, in recent years, ex-Ministry drummer BillRieflin, Stipe, Buck and Mills charged the musical exploration andinternal debate on those records with the dirty-silver jangle andget-in-the-van surge of R.E.M.’s quartet-era classics, such as 1986’sLifes Rich Pageant and 1987’s Document.
Accelerate is the first studioalbum by that post-Berry stage band, and it is one of the best recordsR.E.M. have ever made. Much of Accelerate was cut in live-band takes andeven tested onstage during a run in Dublin last summer, and it shows.Guitars are front and center, in slashing-chord and rusted-arpeggiocrossfires, as if you’ve got R.E.M.’s 1982 EP Chronic Town and the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks spinning in your CD tray at the sametime. “Man-Sized Wreath,” “Supernatural Superserious” and “Horse toWater” rattle and zoom like buried treasures from an old club-tour setlist. And there is nothing soft or shy about the slower darkness either.In “Houston,” a stark snapshot of post-Katrina exile (“If the stormdoesn’t kill me/The government will”), crude fuzz drones and ham-fistedorgan chords roll over Buck’s acoustic guitar and the fighter’s will inStipe’s voice (“I was taught to hold my head high. . . . Make the bestof what today has”) like oily floodwater.
But the R.E.M. on Accelerateis also the one I saw at New York’s Madison Square Garden right after2004’s Vote for Change Tour — and two nights after Bush’sre-election. Bummed but unbowed, they opened the show with loud, fastdefiance — “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I FeelFine)” — and they do the same thing here, with “Living Well Is theBest Revenge.” “Don’t turn your talking points on me/History will set mefree/The future is ours, and you don’t even rate a footnote,” Stipesings in a rapid, ecstatic near-shout over flying fists of guitar andracing bass and drums. And that’s just the start of the blowback.”Nature abhors a vacuum/But what’s between your ears?” he snaps in”Man-Sized Wreath,” a bitter laugh at empty pomp and sound-bitepatriotism, aimed at sheep and herders alike. And whoever “Mr. Richards”is, he gets his just desserts — “Mr. Richards, your conviction/Hadus cheering in the kitchen” — served with Buck and McCaughey’sbristling-glam guitars.
Stipe has not sounded this viscerally engaged inhis singing and poetically lethal in his writing since the twilight ofthe Reagan administration. But he is not merely protesting the mess ofthe nation. Accelerate is total-victory rock, Stipe making promises heknows he can keep — “You weakened shill . . . Savor your dyingbreath” (“Living Well”) — because he’s not alone. The apocalypseis obvious in “Sing for the Submarine,” an urban-holocaust update ofCrosby, Stills and Nash’s hippie-escape plan “Wooden Ships.” So is thestrength in numbers. “It’s all a lot less frightening/Than we would’vehad it be,” Stipe insists, as Mills swoops way behind him inguardian-angel harmony. (Mills’ vocals, too often taken for granted, arefrequent literal high points on the album, the reassuring sunlight onStipe’s gritty delivery.) And in “Hollow Man,” Stipe concedes his ownneeds and fuck-ups, then calls for help — “Corner me and make mesomething” — in a stunning mix of tender-piano ballad andbig-guitar chorus that sums up the commitment that makes true loves,democracies and great rock bands possible.
Ultimately, the best thingabout Accelerate is that R.E.M. sound whole again, no longerthree-legged but complete in their bond and purpose. “Music will providethe light you cannot resist,” Stipe crows at the end of the record, inthe atomic frivolity of “I’m Gonna DJ.” And you can believe him — because he and his band believe in themselves again.