Most reviews of R.E.M.'s new album Accelerate either celebrate a rocking, political "return to form" or criticize a safe, self-conscious attempt to recapture the adoration of the masses a la U2. Both viewpoints have their merit, but in a purely aesthetic sense, the 34-minute album is truly enjoyable, especially following two near-slogging records. Around the Sun from 2004, and Reveal three years earlier, squandered the promise of the adventurous Up, which boasted a wounded yet shimmering perseverance after Bill Berry's departure. Accelerate thankfully presents not only Peter Buck's much-missed guitar crunch & bass virtuoso Mike Mills' invaluable backing vocals, but also Michael Stipe's most lucid political lyrics to date, especially poignant in the opening lines of post-Katrina-migration tale "Houston": "If the storm doesn't kill me, the government will."
What's most exciting for me about Accelerate is the opportunity for new fans to discover the band's rich discography, as I did myself following 1994's Monster, the band's first cathartic "back to rock" album. As Bryan Adams said, "Kids Wanna Rock", and I admit that only an album like Monster could've been my gateway to the band's more nuanced work, whether the Southern-gothic folk of Fables of the Reconstruction or the fragile majesty of Automatic for the People.
Let's be honest. The average teenage rock-radio listener is conditioned to want/need aggression of some sort (so much so that even Limp Bizkit had a successful career). Michael Stipe's sometimes painfully bare vocals catalyzed my appreciation in general for male vulnerability in pop music. It's hard to imagine the 14-year-old me digging Rufus Wainwright as much as I do today. Or anyone over 30.
To the new R.E.M. converts, enjoy. There's nothing like discovering a band with over 13 albums ready for excavation, allowing you to forego the usual frustrated longing for new material as a fan of younger artists. Soon, you too can hope and pray for live performances of your favorite decades-old rarities. To get you started, here are some of R.E.M.'s best album tracks (yes, even from their recent records):"Stumble" - Ahh, the power of the arpeggio...Chronic Town, 1982"9-9" - Surely written after they opened for Gang of Four.Murmur, 1983"Little America" - About the joys of being broke as hell and touring the country in a van.Reckoning, 1984"Life and How to Live It" - The best rock anthem that nobody knows.Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985"Just a Touch" -Referencing Patti Smith's version of "My Generation" and possibly dissing the Beatles.Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986"King of the Road" - Charming yet inebriated Roger Miller cover that foreshadowed the Hindu Love Gods album.Dead Letter Office, 1987"Strange" - This Wire cover tests your tolerance for Stipe's trademark whine.Document, 1987"You Are the Everything" - Bucks discovers something called a mandolin and Stipe finally relishes "the first-person".Green, 1988"Low" - A bizarrely catchy, experimental love song from an album full of them.Out of Time, 1991"Monty Got a Raw Deal" - About Montgomery Clift or witnessing a lynching...or both...or neither.Automatic for the People, 1992"I Took Your Name" - Stipe name-checks Iggy Pop in exchange for the Stooges riffs.Monster, 1994"The Wake-Up Bomb" - This glam-rock ode to a hangover is "Little America" 12 years and millions of sales later.New Adventures in Hi-Fi, 1996"Parakeet" - Perfectly captures the feeling of hesitation that reportedly plagued the recording sessions.Up, 1998"The Lifting" - Unfortunately, this rollicking opening track did not set the tone for the rest of the album.Reveal, 2001"I Wanted to Be Wrong" - It's a shame more people didn't hear this tender exploration of post-9/11 domestic confusion, but at least Bill Maher put it on his iPod.Around the Sun, 2004---David Sason R.E.M. plays UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre with Modest Mouse and The National on Saturday, May 31st. Tickets go on sale this Sunday at 10am.