Considering the buzz that preceded 2001’s Reveal, it’s probably wise to regard the pre-release buzz surrounding R.E.M.‘s Accelerate with a healthy dose of skepticism. Billed as a return to form, Reveal ended up offering a couple of fine standalone singles but still followed in the band’s post-Bill Berry pattern of recording both art-pop experiments and formal genre exercises, neither with consistent success. Accelerate, already being touted as a full-fledged comeback, earns that reputation for being the first album on which the trio of Michael Stipe and recently-out heterosexuals Peter Buck and Mike Mills sound like a reasonable facsimile of the R.E.M. before Berry’s departure.
Driven by Buck’s electric guitar riffs, Mills’s backing vocals, and Stipe’s intermittently self-referential lyrics, the album certainly sounds like a deliberate attempt at a comeback. Whether or not the album succeeds in that regard is debatable (simply having songs that recall the band’s IRS recordings does not, in and of itself, constitute renewed relevance or recaptured form), but Accelerate does succeed as a focused, skillfully controlled rock record and R.E.M.‘s most start-to-finish satisfying album since 1996’s still-underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Beyond the aggressive arrangements (Buck’s contributions haven’t been pushed so heavily into the foreground in over a decade), what’s most immediately striking about these songs is their brevity, with fully half of the songs barely cracking three minutes. That’s a significant change from the increasingly aimless, freeform rambles that bogged down albums like Reveal and Around the Sun.
Though his songs seem carefully edited here, Stipe hasn’t abandoned his more recent lyrical style: Excellent first single “Supernatural Superserious” is another of his “advice songs,” which he’s able to sell more convincingly than any other contemporary songwriter because of his believable sense of empathy, and “Man-Sized Wreath” hinges on his idiosyncratic manner of combining images. But for a few borderline embarrassing lines on closer “I’m Gonna DJ,” which plays like a contemporary rewrite of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” and the uncharacteristically too-literal “Hollow Man,” the band’s focus on writing leaner songs has paid off in a collection that avoids some of Stipe’s self-indulgent tendencies. The occasional callbacks to older songs—the distortion on “Mr. Richards” recalls the hit singles from Monster, Buck’s lead riff on “Houston” sounds at least partially lifted from “Swan Song H,” and “Sing for the Submarine” makes explicit references to “Electron Blue” and “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”—manage to avoid easy nostalgia and, as a result, don’t come across as pandering attempts to reclaim some of the band’s lost fanbase or critical cachet.
It works in the band’s favor that, for a supposed comeback attempt, R.E.M. doesn’t seem desperate to be loved here. Much of Accelerate actually sounds fired-up and angry: “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” is an aggressive opening salvo, the oblique narrative of “Mr. Richards” finds Stipe at his most effectively political, and the gritty, double-speed “Horse to Water” is the album’s most self-critical song. The forceful, treble-heavy guitars give a real sense of follow-through to the album’s punch. The band has long threatened that their next album would be a real rock album, and Accelerate finally makes good on that promise. If it isn’t able to recapture the post-punk energy of Reckoning, the political fury of Life’s Rich Pageant, or the epic scope of Automatic for the People, the album, at the very least, finds the band playing to its strengths rather than attempting to explore an increasingly thin artistic mythology. That alone justifies Accelerate‘s positive buzz, even if the album doesn’t quite support the magnitude of it.