Monday, March 17

R.E.M.

Not so much a leak as a dam-break on this one....

Unfortunately, it's "much ado...," as I had feared.

Okay, look. I'm not one of those hardcore, protectionist R.E.M.-bassadors who bought CHRONIC TOWN the day it came out and started shouting "sellouts!" circa LIFES RICH PAGEANT. Like a lot of people, I didn't truly "find" the band until the one-two punch of OUT OF TIME and AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE. "Losing My Religion" "Drive," and "Man on the Moon" were crucial marking posts, to be sure -- but, ultimately, no more so than "Belong," "Texarkana," "Monty Got a Raw Deal," or "Find the River."

It was during this time period that I "borrowed" a hated college roommate's copy of EPONYMOUS and -- armed with a cheap-but-sonically-pristine pair of headphones -- began to delve into the band's lauded back-catalogue. This was a revelatory listen. From the sheer kinetic energy of "Radio Free Europe" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" to MIKE MILLS' indispensable counterpoint vocals on "The One I Love," "So. Central Rain" and "Fall on Me," I was transfixed in a way that I hadn't been since my 13-year-old ears first achieved aural orgasm with DEF LEPPARD's PYROMANIA (and wouldn't be again until my 27-year-old ears found deep-and-lasting love with OK COMPUTER).

So... MONSTER was the first R.EM. album I purchased on the day of its release, and I've managed to maintain the tradition ever since. But with increasing difficulty, post-BILL BERRY. 2004's AROUND THE SUN, in particular, plunged me into a deep, dark pit of despair. The songs were largely lifeless. Incessantly mid-tempo. Muzak too sluggish to accompany supermarket shopping. Muzak just sprightly enough to drive in-chair aerobics at the old folks' home. Mercy, mercy me.

It seemed quite clear that, if R.E.M. were ever going to mount anything even resembling a career-kickstarting comeback, certain changes would have to be made. For starters, producer Pat McCarthy would have to be jettisoned -- not for professional incompetence, but because Buck, Mills, and Stipe had become too comfortable with him (as they'd become too comfortable with Scott Litt before him). Next, they'd need to pick up the pace. On stage, they continued to prove themselves capable of kicking ass. In the studio, a sort of inescapable, blanket lethargy seemed to descend upon them. Perhaps a listen to "Gardening at Night," "Pretty Persuasion," "Can't Get There From Here," or even "Star 69" would serve as an instructive reminder that speed kills (and that, in rock 'n' roll, that's a good thing).

Last but not least, Mike Mills' musical role would have to be re-thought. For years, the man had been straying from his bass -- the instrument that had grounded the band from the get-go, freeing PETER BUCK to develop his unique, circular, no-solo guitar style. Too often of late, Mills seemed satisfied to sequester himself behind a piano (where his melodies tended to be generically pretty) or some vintage synthesizer that Buck had picked up on his restless-leg travels (the last three R.E.M. records are hopelessly clogged with energy-deadening keyboard fills & folderal). Finally, Stipe would have to take the muzzle off Mills and let the man sing a little. Mills' "sunny" tenor had always served as perfect foil for Stipe's sometimes-whiny/sometimes-gravelly baritone. Their vocal interplay -- as much as Buck's arpeggios and Mills' melodic basslines -- was a signature of early-to-mid-career R.E.M., and it was long-past-due that they rediscover it.

Which brings us, finally, to ACCELERATE -- the long-promised, would-be return-to-form. The context seemed promising. A new producer (Jacknife Lee) had been brought on board to keep the ship from slipping instinctively into safe harbors. The songs are faster (and shorter) -- many clocking in at under three minutes. Buck plays guitar! Mills plays bass! Stipe sings! And so does Mills! There's a rough-edged energy to the thing. It feels off-the-cuff; thrown-together -- not over-produced; over-arranged; over-thought; over before it even began. Yet: It falls flat. It still feels generic, somehow. There's heat but no light. In the end, in its own way, it's a collection of songs no more noteworthy or distinguished than AROUND THE SUN's. (And you have no idea how much it pains me to say that.)

Lead single "Supernatural Superserious" provides a pretty good case-in-point. It's a catchy little thing, and -- sure enough -- there's Mike Mills, on cue, singing high & striving on the chorus, just as in olden days. But that ends up being the problem. It's the dreaded Copy-of-a-Copy Syndrome. Diminishing returns -- despite all best efforts and intentions -- are inevitable. (See/hear "Leaving New York," "Imitation of Life," and "Daysleeper" for further proof/evidence of this decade-long trend.)

Elsewhere on the new record, opening one-two "Living Well is the Best Revenge" and "Man-Sized Wreath" have the feel of NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI rockers like "The Wake-Up Bomb" and "Departure." They're serviceable, sure -- but, ultimately, forgettable. Fact is, R.E.M. have never been particularly adept at the "gritty" thing. They'd do well to surrender that territory to PEARL JAM once and for all and just get on with it.

"Hollow Man" starts out as a bad ballad before loping into a bad GOO GOO DOLLS/COUNTING CROWS chorus. "Until the Day is Done" is musically by-the-numbers and lyrically on-the-nose. Funny how much more effective Stipe's political testaments were when presented as oblique allegory or inscrutable haiku ("Talk About the Passion," "Green Grow the Rushes," "Cuyahoga," "Disturbance at the Heron House"). "Mr. Richards" is a lazy guitar rewrite of UP's swirling electronic dervish "Hope." And closer "I'm Gonna DJ" should have remained a live-performance-only rave-up. Committed to disc, it sounds canned & mechanical (& absolutely no fun at all; "Superman," where are you?).

So that's that. As I've been writing this, I've found myself feeling more angry than sad -- though the sadness will come. Should I feel the need, I still have the sanctuary of that lauded R.E.M. back-catalogue to retreat to. And it's not as if ACCELERATE is the worst highly-anticipated album I've heard this year (not so long as BOB MOULD and THE BREEDERS are around). In the end, it's all about unreasonable expectations, I guess. The impossibility of being young again. Of turning back the clock, popping EPONYMOUS into the player, strapping on the cheap-but-sonically-pristine pair of headphones, and discovering something utterly new that delights and surprises at every tuck and turn. R.E.M.'s 14th album, ACCELERATE, alas, possesses no such transformative magic. Shame on me for wanting so desperately to believe that it might.


[MP3] "Horse to Water"

[MP3] "Sing for the Submarine"

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8 Comments:

Blogger Dan said...

I am looking forward to the CD anyway. Even 1/2way decent REM is too few and far between.

Sing 4 Sub file is a GIF?

10:11 PM  
Blogger Allen L. said...

One of the strange things about this album is that we would even expect it to be good. Hear me out. I used to love REM. In 1983. (later as well, but....) That is 25 years ago.
To say that in 1983 we *might* be disappointed in the irrelevancy of, say, I dunno, a new Bill Haley and the comets record wouldn't be that far off.
25 years is DOZENS of lifetimes in Rock Music.
The fact that they have this massive multi album multi million dollar contract from, what, 17 years ago, I think plays an important part of this band's legacy.
They said if one left they would break up. But they didn't. Because contractually that was impossible.
But, really, after Berry left I think they should have gone their several ways.
Mills would have had a terrific career as an arranger and producer and might have put out some neat little solo albums.
Buck would be that loveable barroom gadabout who would sit in on just about every local indie band's first single.
And Stipe would become Brian Eno or something.
But that they were tied to this entity called R.E.M.
This is the 10th album in, what I believe, is a 10 record contract. (I don't know how compilations factor in) but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that they break up after the dismal sales of this piece.
Sadly, R.E.M. is a relic. They are "of a time". They really wanted to be Radiohead. In the end, they come up a little short.
I don't look forward to reviewing this thing.

1:14 AM  
Blogger Ctelblog said...

Great review. I will buy Accelerate but in hope not expectation.

4:54 AM  
Anonymous Neil Cake said...

You've summed up everything I currently feel about REM. I haven't heard the new album yet, and won't be doing so until it falls below the £5 mark, but I heard "Supernatural Superserious", and my opinion was the same as yours. So well done for succinctly and cohesively getting all those feelings about REM out.

My entire REM experience was similar to yours actually. I first got into Out of Time and Automatic after hearing them repeatedly at a friend's house, then got The Best of REM and heard the old stuff. Monster was the first one I bought, though I didn't actually feel it was any good...

6:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Free Europe?

Vote YES or NO at www.FreeEurope.info

6:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a shock to see how this band has ground to a halt post Bill Berry. Who knew he was so integral until he left? Since then they have been musically shadows of their former selves. A shame.

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some people just can't be satisfied.

10:24 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Have you rethought this review? This album started off good and has really grown on me.

8:58 AM  

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