Although not their final record, Accelerate became R.E.M.’s last hurrah in a number of ways – their first album to truly rock for over a decade, it also provided them with renewed critical praise and their last globe-gobbling world tour. Sam Lambeth takes another look.
When Bill Berry departed R.E.M. at the tail end of 1996, few fans could predict just how impactful it would become on the remaining three. To those outside of the group’s circle, Berry was the band’s drummer with the funny eyebrow(s). To R.E.M. themselves, he was the group’s mediator, the one who would encourage subtlety over bombast and the one who wasn’t afraid to voice his opinions. He may not have been the most focal point of the band, but an anchor only needs a spiky bit at the end of it to be an anchor – without Berry, R.E.M. became adrift.
To understand Accelerate, released in March 2008 to critical and commercial acclaim, is to understand what came before. In 2003, R.E.M. were working on the follow-up to the sunkissed torpor of Reveal and were hoping to make a record with more punch and immediacy. Halfway through, though, the pull of releasing a Greatest Hits album – titled In Time – proved too great, and off went Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck on a lucrative world tour. Crucially, they also took two stellar new songs slated for their next record – the punk rush of Bad Day and the techno-tinged robotics of Animal – and put them on their new retrospective. By the time they returned to the studio, they became shrouded in uncertainty and self-doubt.
Around the Sun was released in 2004 and was the nadir of a lost weekend, a limp and listless collection of somnambulant ballads that lacked any of R.E.M.’s true identity. It was something, sadly, R.E.M. had been building towards for a long time, and any hope of an upward career trajectory seemed as lost as the trio themselves.
Redemption began in 2007, when the trio booked a succession of what they dubbed ‘live rehearsals’ at the Dublin Olympia. The group kept things tight and focused, playing deep cuts from their IRS catalogue and revealing a selection of new songs that had guts, thrust and plenty of fuzz. If anything, the songs that began to form Accelerate were nothing like the R.E.M. of old, but yet sounded like a glorious anachronism – the guitars were as distorted as Monster but nowhere near as murky, and the riffs had the melodic muscularity of Document without the jangly overtones.
Even when it came to recording, it was a reaction to Around the Sun. Instead of months of gestation, R.E.M. kept focused by moving from city to city, recording in quick jolts to prevent Stipe from overthinking his lyrics. “I work really well under pressure, and the guys know that,” he said, “so the pace forced me to spit stuff out.” Spit out, he did – opener Living Well is the Best Revenge is a frenzied thump of agitation as the singer blasts “you set me up like a lamb to the slaughter, Garbo is the farmer’s daughter” over Buck’s fizzy guitar motif and, crucially, Mills’ herculean backing vocals – both of which had been wiped away from Around the Sun.
The opening salvo was one of the strongest in R.E.M.’s considerable canon – the bullish garage pomp of Man-Sized Wreath is rich with Mills-led harmonies and a signature Buck arpeggio, before bleeding into the roughed-up melodic terrain of lead single Supernatural Superserious. As the first taste of Accelerate, and in spite of its goofy name (allegedly devised by Chris Martin, who has a history of this sort of thing), Supernatural Superserious allowed every R.E.M. fan to breath a collective sigh of relief as guitars swelled, Mills sang and Stipe soared.
The album didn’t just stay loyal to spiky college rock, and the scorched country hymn Houston and the lingering ballad Until the Day Is Done showed R.E.M. hadn’t abandoned their diverse creative turf. However, Accelerate was all about moving forward at an alarmingly fast pace, and it ends with its foot firmly on the gas pedal – Horse to Water is full of bludgeoning swaths of six-string fury as Stipe calls himself a “bantamweight with a mouthful of feathers”, while more ridiculous is closer I’m Gonna DJ, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it slice of punk scuzz as Stipe cries “death is pretty final, I’m collecting vinyl, I’m gonna DJ at the end of the world.”
With Accelerate came a world tour and a chance for R.E.M. to really cement their place back amongst the alt-rock elite. Their headlining set at T in the Park meshed classics from their ‘90s/’00s heyday with mercurial cuts from their pre-commercial years (hearing the likes of Sitting Still and Fall On Me being particularly resonant). On the tour, they brought in rocking tunes like Ignoreland and Circus Envy. By the time the promotion behind Accelerate came to a close, they seemed like a band rejuvenated but little did we know that behind the scenes the group were already planning an amicable exit, one that would be achieved with their final album, 2011’s Collapse Into Now.
Since then, some critics have argued Accelerate hasn’t aged well, and that they were appropriating a sound that was never really theirs in the first place. But Accelerate was never meant as a mea culpa or a retreat into the past – as its name suggests, it was about forward momentum and letting R.E.M. rock. Ten years on, it never once stalls.
Related: Read Jon Kean’s review of the 25 yr anniversary re-released Automatic For The People
R.E.M. are on Facebook. They split in 2011.
Sam Lambeth is a journalist, writer and musician, born in the West Midlands but currently living in London. He performs in his own band, Quinn. He is on Twitter, and more of his work can be found on his archive.