Not Exactly Back, Not Yet Out of Time

On Accelerate, R.E.M. sounds happy just being part of the landscape.

There comes a point in every band’s life when it must make a decision: call it quits or carry on. For R.E.M. it was October 1997. Soon after the band signed a record $80 million contract with Warner Bros., drummer Bill Berry announced his decision to leave. Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills — the same three guys who had formed R.E.M. with Berry seventeen years earlier in Athens, Georgia — opted to persist as a trio. But their next three records marked a disheartening dry spell: 1998’s Up, 2001’s Reveal, and 2004’s Around the Sun were R.E.M.’s poorest received yet. Six years of confused art-pop bordering on adult contemporary was enough to worry the most diehard fans. It seemed the band had chosen the wrong path, in the process tarnishing its image as a principled pioneer of alternative rock.

None of this matters much to Peter Buck. The R.E.M. guitarist, who was born in Berkeley in 1956 and spent his first few years in Richmond, remains obstinately proud of his band. Of course, this has more to do with the events of the last few months than the inertia of the preceding decade. He’s positively gleeful about the April release of one of his band’s best albums, a back-to-basics rock record that officially ends the post-Berry slump. Accelerate possesses a lot that its immediate predecessors lacked, but most importantly finds late-period R.E.M. finally wearing its heart on its sleeve.

Brash opener “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” driven by a gritty immediacy in Stipe’s voice not heard since 1994’s Monster, leaves no question about Accelerate‘s intentions. The album was recorded quickly, Buck says, with the intent of capturing what’s best about the band’s live performance. The approach “forced us into being the R.E.M. that I think is the good R.E.M.” — spontaneous and rough-around-the-edges. “Supernatural Superserious” upholds the group’s habit of issuing singles that subvert darker elements in favor of kitsch appeal (remember “Shiny Happy People” and “Superman”?). “Accelerate” speaks loudly, if not articulately, with a charging rhythm section and the astute balance between cacophony and melody that was a hallmark of alternative rock. But best of all is “Mr. Richards,” a fuzzed-out jam built around a sterling vocal melody and the contrast of a jaunty, dub-inflected bassline over Buck’s rolling wall of distortion. The album hardly relents over thirty-five minutes, at times approaching punk ferocity. Stipe’s lyrics remain sharp, showing glimpses of the poetic insight fans have always cherished — when they could understand him, at least.

“I still feel that we’re a vital band,” Buck said during a phone interview from his home in Seattle. Plenty of pundits seem to agree. Accelerate was immediately hailed as a comeback album and has prompted a lot of talk hinging on phrases like “the return of R.E.M.” But is the band really back, or just milking its history? With its glory days fixed in another century, its middle-age fanbase occupied with careers and families, and its odds of reentering the American zeitgeist next to nothing, is R.E.M. even relevant anymore? Buck is notably sensitive to the question. “Relevant to who?” he demurs. With the music mainstream diverted into a thousand little creeks, he argues, the concept of relevancy in today’s popular music is merely a red herring.

“I’m not sure we’re gonna be relevant to a seventeen-year-old, but I’m not sure who is,” Buck continued. “I don’t expect to have the impact on people that we did in the ’80s.” That much we can agree on. The band was initially credited with launching college rock through its 1983 debut, Murmur. The genre would later be recognized as a precursor to alternative rock, which in turn owes further debt to R.E.M. via Monster. Buck himself is responsible for one of most imitated aspects of R.E.M.’s sound — a chiming, arpeggiated guitar tone he developed early on. Beyond its music, the group was widely respected from the very beginning for its adherence to DIY principles and refusal to openly court success.

Maintaining his challenge of any critique against R.E.M.’s ongoing influence, Buck notes with pride that his fourteen-year-old son’s friends have told him they love the new record. Case closed? Hardly. If newly minted teens were to notice, let alone enjoy any of R.E.M.’s records over the last decade, it’d have to be this one. And although Buck denies it, the band’s choice of opening acts for its early-summer tour may reveal an attempt to connect with a younger audience. Buck insists that Modest Mouse and the National were chosen because they share a similar aesthetic and worldview. But these are two of the hottest bands in modern indie rock, and it doesn’t take a marketing genius to see how the association alone could boost R.E.M.’s cachet.

This much is certain: Twenty-five years after Murmur and eleven after Monster, R.E.M. no longer belongs to the very scenes it helped spawn. “We’ve just become part of the landscape,” Buck admits. But again, he’s not fazed. “Whatever alternative or indie or post-punk was, it’s mainstream now. I feel comfortable there.” If his complacency doesn’t scream old age, try this: The band was welcomed with open arms into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, the first in which it was eligible. Bill Berry returned for a four-song reunion at the induction ceremony.

Using Accelerate as a bridge to a brighter past or to stir up interest among fading fans is fine and dandy, but should be seen for what it is. Likewise, deducing that R.E.M. is “back” from the simple fact that Accelerate rocks is disingenuous and shallow. Sure, the group’s thirteenth album makes a raucous statement, but it also lacks the originality and daring subtlety of R.E.M.’s best work. It’s simply the sound of three guys in their late 40s and early 50s playing music they enjoy and trying to make a living at it. “We’re not U2 or the Stones who can go out any place on earth and play in front of 50,000 people,” Buck concedes. “We’re just figuring out a way to keep doing this.”

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