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Reviews

REM: Accelerate

Paul Northup

REM released their 14th studio album as our clocks went forward. And there is a spring in the step of their latest offering. Many are saying that it marks a 'return to form' for the band. But this judgement has preceded every REM album for the last decade or so.

This time, it seems the billing might be true - on a first listen, anyway. This has much to do with the ramped-up production. The pace of the first three songs is breathtaking and the electric guitar is back. Not the ponderous power-plod of 1994's Monster (the album that marked the onset of their 'less-than-best' period), but the infectious verve of their seminal student-friendly 80s records, especially Life's Rich Pageant.

In those days a mumbling Stipe would hide behind his fringe, his dream-describing vocals deep in the mix. Now, no fringe to hide behind, his vocals ride on a big bed of big guitars. The energy is immediate and exciting. All the best things about REM are foregrounded: Mick Mills' angelic backing vocals, Peter Buck's fast-paced jangly riffs; REM's quirky-chord-change pop.

Repeat plays, however, betray Accelerate as a curiously one-dimensional album. The opening promises much, as Stipe borrows from George Herbert's line 'Living well is the best revenge', but this is an odd, if potentially creative, juxtaposition: the 17th-century poet-priest cheek by jowl with 21st century bluster and bravado. Where Herbert's call is prophetic, Stipe domesticates it, turning on those who have dissected his career: 'Choking on the bones you toss to them, well I'm not one to sit and spin, because living well's the best revenge.'

On the whole, the wordsmithery is not nearly as great as it could be, and it's far more direct than usual. This doesn't suit Stipe. Admittedly, the poet-polemicist is a tricky role to play but he has pulled it off in the past. Here, however, the poetry is clunky at best and the anti-Bush polemic ('The battle's been lost, the war is not won, an addled republic, a bitter refund') is late. And, in falling short poetically and polemically, the album lacks the sort of prophetic, soul-stirring dimension we know REM can muster. It's not enough to sing (in 'Mr Richards') that 'We know what's going on, yes we know what's going on.'

So is this album a 'return to form'? Or is it REM deliberately returning to former glories? Or is the assumption about form wrong altogether, in that it underrates REM's output since 1992, which, although mixed, has contained many moments of exquisite country-esque music. Yes, country. Those great 80s records were dubbed country-punk by many, and the watershed Automatic for the People was described by Bono as 'the greatest country record ever made'. This is what Accelerate lacks most: the sort of country sensibility that has put REM so naturally in touch with the human condition, its possibilities and limitations.

And, despite the confidence of this record, Stipe recognises this. In the confessional 'Hollow Man' he sings: 'I'm overwhelmed, I'm on repeat, I'm emptied out, I'm incomplete ... I don't want to be the hollow man.' And in the title track he repeats, 'I'm incomplete.' Because, as good an album as Accelerate is (and it sounds great), ultimately, as with all acceleration, the exhilaration is transient, partial. Accelerate is an album that is rushing, not rooted.