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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Don’t count them out yet

Published: March 28, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

The perennial curse of bands that develop well-defined sounds is the stereotyping by critics that can stifle creative freedom. Journalists will often develop certain catchphrases for such bands that inevitably become incorporated in their identities. For example, every mention of My Bloody Valentine in a music publication includes the word “gauzy,” while Belle & Sebastian will always be tainted by the epithet “twee.”

In the tradition of classic folk-rockers like the Byrds, indie front-runners R.E.M. were tagged early on in their career with the “jangly” stamp, and they cannot seem to escape it despite their shape-shifting aesthetic. Nevertheless, a more appropriate adjective to describe their newest album, Accelerate, which will be officially released on April 1, is incendiary. With bristling distorted guitar blasts, ricocheting vocals and politically conscious declarations, the band sounds as invigorated as they are pissed off.

While it’s easy to position this album as a comeback among their recent muddled failures, that interpretation wouldn’t distinguish it as a triumph. After all, Rolling Stone trumpeted the virtues of Dylan’s New Morning after decrying Self Portrait’s heresy, yet the former has been gathering dust on most fans’ shelves for the past thirty years. Nevertheless, even without considering Accelerate’s context, there’s no denying that it’s one of the year’s finest alternative rock recordings.

Everything about the album indicates a change in direction. Throughout its career, R.E.M. has proven most successful when it reigns in its expansive tendencies and narrows its musical lens. That’s exactly what they’ve done on Accelerate, which infuses hummable melodies with a raucous punk attitude and high-octane arrangements.

The single, “Supernatural Superserious” opens with a simple yet surprisingly gripping chord progression paired with an equally mesmerizing vocal line. Michael Stipe cantillates a verse that probably sums up the band’s attitude to their newest venture: “Everybody here comes from somewhere/If they would just as soon forget/A disguise.” The chorus blossoms as Stipe’s husky incantations intertwine with Peter Buck’s angelic wails.

Although Accelerate sounds like it belongs in the nineties alternative canon, there’s enough diversity between the selections here to garner comparisons alternately to the unbridled fury of early Replacements, self-righteous folk ballads of solo Lennon, and the dense, brooding, lush pop of This is Hardcore-era Pulp. The chorus of “Sing for the Submarine” even manages the Herculean task of creating an accurate simulacrum of Radiohead’s “Climbing Up the Walls” without sounding pallid by comparison

Lyrically, Stipe is in top form, his diatribes against the Bush administration and meditations on a “country in ruin” forming the key thematic elements. “If the storm doesn’t kill me, the government will,” he bellows on the bile-filled ode to Katrina, “Houston.”

Ultimately, however, it’s the “nevermind the bollocks” attitude that elevates Accelerate above the band’s recent offerings. “Mr. Richards” is a vituperative tirade against a corrupt government official (who may or may not be Mr. Richard Cheney) that melds Johnny Marr -style strumming with explosive yet minimal drumming. “Living Well is the Best Defense,” the strongest song on the album, is probably the closest the trio will ever come to Husker Du territory without sacrificing an ounce of their characteristic tunefulness.

R.E.M. could simply rest on their laurels and continue experimenting with different genres as they’ve done on the past few albums. Instead, they make a case not only for their continued relevance but also prove that they can articulate moral outrage better than most younger bands. Perhaps the only consolation I’ll have if John McCain gets elected as president is that this enormously talented group will have more ammunition with which to ignite their passionate energy.