The Dark Side of the Great R.E.M. Comeback
I find the R.E.M. resurgence building around Accelerate heartening, but also a little sad -- it requires them to more or less shit on everything they've done in the last decade. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more reviled record in the 21st century canon than 2004's Around the Sun, the band's last and, by universal consensus, worst. I will not attempt to disavow you of this notion -- it's bad. Like an R.E.M. riddim record, 13 variations on a yawning midtempo shuffle, feckless and hookless. But I still feel bad for it, and for the band, that it's now a sacrificial lamb, reviewers and interviewers gleefully shredding it as a way to praise Accelerate. "R.E.M. is back!" goes the meme. "Rocking again! Shaking off the cobwebs! None of that sleepy electronic crap! Guitars!"
This, too, is not entirely untrue -- there's an undeniable raucous vigor to Accelerate, whether the sentiment driving that is let's-rock-out or oh-shit-we'd-better-rock-out. But regardless, you can hear the boys gritting their teeth as journalists and fans alike damn the past to praise the present. From Michael Stipe's Pitchfork interview:
Pitchfork: A lot of people have remarked on the punchiness and conciseness of the album. Is that a reaction to Around the Sun?
Michael Stipe: You're going to read that over and over again, and we freely admit that we lost focus on the last record. But we also say, and people tend to downplay this part, I really like the material on that record. I think the songs are great. It's just the way we approached them in the studio that really I don't think made them shine as much as they might have. And whatever steps we've taken, I'm not going to badmouth any of the work that we've done, but I'm also not deluded about it. It's not as much of a reaction as reporters who we've sat at a table face to face with... Everyone comes into an interview situation with their own story and their own idea and then they cherrypick the comments that help create their argument. And so I think for the band members it's not as much a reaction to the last record as you might read. It's simply that we all realize that we had lost focus, and we did the most obvious thing, which is to write really fast songs that are really in your face and kind of raw.
Pitchfork: That whole "reaction" line seems to be an easy story to sell.
MS: Yeah, it's a fine story. It's not exactly accurate, is what I'm saying.
"Focus" is the official band euphemism, the compromise. But I fear that Accelerate doesn't as much evoke classic R.E.M. as just remind people of classic R.E.M. It's not as good as 1998's Up, the first post-Bill Berry record, the initial big mellow-electronica push. But folks just tolerated that one and heaped opprobrium on the two that followed; now that the band will turn up and rock out again, they get a cookie, a magazine cover, a B+. I wonder if the band thinks it's worth it.