Making good art is the best revenge
I can't quite put my finger on just what has been wrong with R.E.M.'s most recent several albums. They are not horrible, not painful to listen to; they're just not ... meaningful. Or memorable. Flimsy, maybe. Empty somehow. The kind of albums I bought because I consider myself an R.E.M. fan, listened to a time or three, and then let gather dust (although I don't think I've ever heard a single song from Reveal; was that really an album?). I haven't even ripped any of the songs from any album since Monster onto my iPod.
Many critics, however, have been hailing Accelerate as a return to form for the band. I have to say, I agree. I very much like this album. Sonically, it's Document meets Automatic for the People, arguably the band's best two records. It rocks. It has soul. It's fun. If, like me, you used to like R.E.M. but haven't paid any attention to them in the past decade, you should give this one a listen.
Lyrically, this album seems in part to be the story of an artist seeking to reconnect with his art. The driving first song, "Living Well's the Best Revenge," seems almost a defiant response to the band's critics, because no doubt the members have been living well regardless of any tepid response to recent efforts. But as a life credo goes, that's ultimately pretty thin, isn't it? Then the songs slow down a notch, and a journey to discovery begins, and a cry for understanding: "Everyone here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget." And then, this, in the plaintive third song, "Hollow Man": "I've been lost inside my head. ... believe in me, believe in nothing, I've become the hollow man. ... You placed your trust in me, I went upside down." This speaks directly to the despair of an artist who's lost his way, his connection to his music. And so the artist begins the hard work of reclaiming that abandoned art, in part by returning to familiar places. From the song "Houston": "I was taught to hold my head high, collect what is mine, make the best of what today has. ... Houston is filled with promise, Laredo is a beautiful place, Galveston sings like that song that I loved, its meaning has not been erased." A valauble lesson for any artist in a funk here: A sense of place can be essential; art is connected to environment; if you have nothing to say, go back to a place you find meaningful. And you can feel the band re-grasping its roots here, refusing to give in to whatever the band equivalent of writer's block is.
And with the reclaiming of those roots comes a new sense of urgency, as expressed in the song "Accelerate," perhaps the strongest song on the album: "No time to question the choices I make, I've got to fall in another direction."
"Until the Day is Done" can be read as almost a prayer for forgiveness for having gotten off track: "As we've written our stories to entertain, these notions of glory and bull market gain, the teleprompt flutters, the power surge brings an easy speed message falls into routine." Sure, it's about our entire culture and politics and our general superficiality, but there's no question the lyrics indict the writer/singer/performer as well. It's that blend of the political and the personal, the universal and the individual that makes this album work so well. This is a coherent, intelligent, inspired album. The lyrics work on multiple levels, and the music feels all part of a single whole. In "Sing for the Submarine," there's a definite sense of achievement, a regaining of the artist's confidence in his voice: "So this is where you trust me, and this where it begins. It's all a lot less frightening, your tear you let it in."
I mentioned Document earlier, and the final four tracks in particular remind me of R.E.M. at that time; there's some of that quirkiness. Remember "Oddfellows Local 151"? "Mr. Richards" and "Horse to Water" have a similar sound, a similar sense of whimsy and fun. Fun ... maybe that's one of the key things that was missing from the previous few records; they weren't particularly fun. Not at all like the final song on this album, for instance, which proclaims: "I'm gonna dj at the end of the world, 'cause if heaven does exist with a kickin' playlist, I don't wanna miss it at the end of the world." The lyrics almost sound like those of a younger band; you can imagine, say, the Arctic Monkeys voicing a similar sentiment. But this song is tinged with maturity, too: "Because death is pretty final, I'm collecting vinyl, I'm gonna dj at the end of the world. ... I don't wanna go 'til I'm good and ready." And there is, finally, a recognition of the importance of art: "Music will provide the light, you cannot resist, you cannot resist, you cannot resist, yeah."
Yes, in some ways, this album is a return to form for R.E.M., a return to roots for one of the great bands of a generation. (Even the CD cover, a crude black and white ink drawing of a futuristic cityscape and the band's name in bubbled letters, looks like some band's first record cover from 1981.) But it's not, by any means, just a remixing of the band's old sound. This is at the least very good music, possibly great music, important not just because it reminds you of how awesome R.E.M. used to be, but because it serves notice of how essential R.E.M. can still be.