Last week, I walked over to Sound Garden and plunked down 13 bucks for the new REM CD, Accelerate. (“How retro,” a colleague quipped.) I consider myself a fan, but it’s been a long time since I bought an REM disc on the day of its release. In fact, it was probably sometime before REM jumped from the indies to the majors, topped the charts with a string of hit songs, held press conferences in castles, toured the world with gourmet chefs and trainers in tow, became celebrities in their own right, lost drummer Bill Berry, and aligned themselves with seemingly every left-leaning political cause. It was definitely before the heat of superstardom burned off the once enigmatic band’s mysterious aura. It was before REM, the brand, muscled in on REM, the band.
After a decade of increasingly lame releases—culminating in 2004’s abysmal Around the Sun and perfunctory “best of” and “live” CDs—Accelerate was hyped as a return to peak form. While not exactly that, it’s a step (backward) in the right direction. Reverse would be a more apt title.
This is the disc REM should have released, in slightly different form, in 2004. At the time, the Iraq war raged, and political dissent was growing. At a concert in DC, REM played a blistering set and, at one point, vocalist Michael Stipe told the crowd, “We f**king hate the current administration.”
So the stage seemed set for an REM record that was both musically and politically charged—“Feeling Gravity’s Pull” meets “Exhuming McCarthy,” perhaps. Instead, we got Around the Sun, a flat-lining disc full of forgettable, mid-tempo songs (“Leaving New York” being a notable exception) and no sense of urgency. A huge misstep, it pushed REM towards irrelevance.
Now, Accelerate sounds urgent, but four years too late. If REM had put out songs such as “Horse To Water,” “Houston,” “Until the Day Is Done,” and “I’m Gonna DJ” in ’04, they’d be wrestling U2 for the “rock gods with a conscience” crown. Instead, they’re playing catch up, still behind the curve.
And fans like me are left to consider, What if? With that in mind, I put together a new and improved REM disc that’s more to my liking. The songs have been reshuffled—one’s been cut, two tunes not on the disc have been added. Here’s the new set list, with a few key lyrics cited along the way…
1. “Horse To Water”: a frenetic call to arms
2. “Man-Sized Wreath”: “Turn on the TV, what do I see?/a pageantry of empty gestures/all lined up for me, wow”; great backing vocals by Mike Mills
3. “Bad Day” (live): plucked from last year’s disappointing live set, the line “We’re sick of being jerked around” could be Stipe drawing a political line in the sand, or he might be channeling the sentiments of long-suffering fans.
4. “Houston”: excellent post-Katrina tune
5. “Hollow Man”: “I’ve been lost inside my head…”
6. “Mr. Richards”: “We know what’s going on,” blissful, shoe-gazing guitar by Peter Buck
7. “Until the Day Is Done”: melodic and solid, “The battle’s been lost, the war is not won.”
8. “Living Well Is the Best Revenge”: rhymes “apostles” with “nostrils”; “I forgive but I don’t forget”
9. “Leaving New York”: only decent song on Around the Sun, it works better recycled here
10. “Supernatural Superserious”: catchy pop, but I can take it or leave it: maybe save this one for the next Cameron Crowe film
11. “Sing for the Submarine”: an odd gem, self-referential and mysterious
12. “I’m Gonna DJ”: apocalyptic and celebratory, the new “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
***cut “Accelerate,” the title track; it’s b-side material at best
There you have it, a leaner and meaner REM—burn a copy and hear for yourself. It’s still uneven, but, at its core, it may be an indicator the members of REM are awakening from their long sleep. And hopefully, the band will, once again, take precedence over the brand.
REM plays Merriweather Post Pavilion, with Modest Mouse and The National, on June 11th.