R.E.M.’s 14th studio album lives up to its speedy title. Accelerate is loud, quick, and dirty, spinning by so fast that it takes multiple listens to absorb. It’s full of buzzing guitars and stream-of-consciousness discontent, along with an abundance of Mike Mills’s choirboy harmonies and sinewy bass. Naturally, it also hints at the band’s past: fuzzy riffs à la 1994’s Monster (the title track), the dirty distortion and droning yowls of 1988’s Green (“Mr. Richards”), orchestrated elegance circa 1992’s Automatic for the People (“Houston”), and the slick political earnestness of 1987’s Document (“Until the Day Is Done”). But the amped-up atmosphere of Accelerate is unique within R.E.M.’s catalog, meaning that you can’t exactly herald it as a Return to Form (whatever that means).
That’s the true genius of the band: Each album has a distinct personality, because they’re adroit at finding cohesion in disparate, unorthodox, and enigmatic elements. But if this one has an overarching theme, it revolves around keeping youthful idealism alive. On “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” Peter Buck’s molten riffs race by, jangling through hyperspace. Frontman Michael Stipe, his voice tinged with gravel and scorn, snarls such lines as “Don’t turn your talking points on me/History will set me free/The future is ours.” Instant classic “Hollow Man” begins with a somber solo piano and a vulnerable Stipe gruffly singing: “I’ve been lost inside my head/Echoes fall on me.” But crashing guitars suddenly bulldoze the chorus and eventually emerge triumphant, mirroring the narrator’s wild-eyed regret at his life and a burning desire to transcend his status as a “hollow man.” Even the hand-wringing protagonist of “Houston” is only stunned, not destroyed, by challenges to his faith after Hurricane Katrina.
Despite such weighty matters, what stands out most is that R.E.M. are having fun again. Recent albums were meticulous, mannered, and frequently moving (especially 1998’s unheralded Up), but often felt strained. Unsurprisingly, Accelerate‘s weakest songs—the shiny-penny pop fluffball “Supernatural Superserious” and “Sing for the Submarine,” a macabre waltz buoyed by floating anxiety—feel like a hangover from this era. The latter tune’s winking nods to old song titles (“electron blue,” “gravity’s pull,” “high-speed train”) are painfully self-aware. It’s a sharp contrast to the rest of Accelerate, on which R.E.M. stop overthinking things—and start roaring toward the future.
R.E.M. play the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater June 14 and Madison Square Garden June 19.