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"