Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Louder and Faster...In Reverse Gear

R.E.M. - Accelerate (Warner Bros, 2008)

Here we go, then, the argument goes something like this….

We’ve all lost faith in R.E.M. They lost their way when Bill Berry tendered his resignation, meandered in a tentative wilderness and lost all purpose and direction. ‘Accelerate’ is the long-awaited ‘return to form’, a PR line on which everyone is clearly in agreement. This even seems to include the band themselves, who now always seem to retreat and accept the party line once their albums are deemed disappointing.

Well, not quite everyone follows this line. Regular readers of this blog will already be aware of my enthusiasm for both ‘New Adventures in Hi Fi’ and ‘Up’ (both of which are more significant and better albums for me than ‘Out of Time’ or ‘Automatic for the People’). I even liked the bulk of ‘Reveal’, although I was troubled by its preference for bland atmospherics and synthetic sheen. I concede that the plodding lethargy of ‘Around The Sun’ dismayed me (although even that album had intriguing moments – ‘The Outsiders’ and ‘High Speed Train’ particularly). Yet this small concession to the critical consensus only helps reveal the limitations of a rather inaccurate line of argument.

As pre-release reports have suggested, ‘Accelerate’ returns rock dynamics (or lack thereof) and vigorous energy to the group. Yet it seems like such a contrived and reactionary record, from its functional, unimaginative title onwards – one made to suit the demands of record company executives, fickle critics and disappointed fans. It lacks the juxtaposition of spontaneity, insight and intelligence that characterised ‘New Adventures in Hi Fi’ or even the playful, self-mocking quirks of ‘Monster’. It is brash and pugnacious, but almost entirely without mystery or intrigue. With a distinct lack of light and shade on offer, the 35 minute run time seems like an essential requirement to avoid monotony, rather than a bold statement in its own right. It transpires that relentless thrashing and driving can sometimes be just as frustrating as interminable plodding. The record actually has its closest parallel in a much longer work – ‘Know Your Enemy’ by the Manic Street Preachers, a similarly uneven and unconvincing attempt to revive former glories, and I’m surprised that other critics have not ventured to make the comparison. Both records sound laboured and strangely self conscious, as if they have some kind of innate obligation to lay claim to the rock music terrain.

REM have never been a heavy rock band in quite this way before. ‘Horse To Water’ for example is so furious it sounds like Nirvana circa ‘In Utero’. It’s one of the most successful tracks on ‘Accelerate’ by virtue of abandoning subtlety altogether. Even the group’s loudest albums (‘Life’s Rich Pageant’, ‘Document’, ‘Monster’) have usually been tempered by quixotic angles, mischievous antics or gothic jangle (the latter of these characteristics admittedly breaks through on two tracks here), but much of ‘Accelerate’ simply sounds horrific. Producer Jacknife Lee, already responsible for two of my least favourite contemporary rock records in U2’s ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ and Snow Patrol’s ‘Eyes Open’, compresses everything until there’s precious little definition or clarity remaining. It’s very loud, necessarily so given Bill Rieflin’s thunderous drumming, but pitch and tone are often completely unintelligible amidst the general wall of noise. Many have mentioned REM’s 1980s material as the template for this, but that music never sounded so harsh and unforgiving. It was big and cinematic, but never ugly. Here, distorted guitars clamour and squall, but only Mike Mills’ bass, confident and elegant as ever, really creates the intended tension.

The process for writing and recording did at least bode well, with the rehearsal shows in Dublin suggesting a similar outcome to the ‘on tour’ document that was ‘New Adventures…’. First single ‘Supernatural Superserious’, with its touching lyric about the overwhelming impact of humiliating teenage experiences and the first, nerve-wracking discoveries of intimacy, augured especially well. Crunchy and packing a commercial punch, it also came with an individuality and appeal worthy of the band’s great legacy. Even in context, it still sounds like a considered but effective repackaging of the REM trademark sound. Buck’s arpeggios, Mills’ counter melodies and Stipe’s charisma are all present, but in a way that seems fresh and engaging.

Much of the rest of the album seems more forced, perhaps even insincere. ‘I’m Gonna DJ’, already a staple of the band’s sets on the last world tour, although goofy and entertaining in a live context, seems like a slightly embarrassing attempt to be hip in its studio form (‘heaven does exist with a kickin’ playlist!’). The title track has a decent, memorable chorus, but Stipe is left floundering beneath a storm of unclear guitar noise. ‘Until The Day Is Done’ revisits the group’s familiar gothic balladry, with more direct political anger than Stipe mustered on ‘Around The Sun’ (‘forgive us our trespasses, father and son’ is transparently directed at George Bush Sr. and Jr.), but it adds little to a rich seam they’ve already mined dry. It feels like a song they’ve already written several times before. ‘Sing For The Submarine’, complete with cloying references to songs from the group’s back catalogue, simply has no melody to speak of at all, although it does sound effectively menacing and threatening. Far too many of the eleven tracks are predicated on Stipe’s more limited, monotonous brand of melody. Only the excellent ‘Hollow Man’, building from an oddly plaintive introduction into something more sprightly, offers any kind of breathing space.

The best material comes at the outset, with the barnstorming ‘Living Well’s The Best Revenge’ and caustic ‘Man Sized Wreath’. Neither song is particularly subtle, but then the group clearly aren’t aiming for that here. There is certainly a visceral thrill at hearing this group kicking back and rocking out once more. Both provide fertile ground for Mills’ nimble bass figures, and the contrast between Stipe’s impassioned ranting and Mills’ vocal counterpoint is exploited particularly well. I like the vocal harmonies on the political parable ‘Mr. Richards’, but whilst it has been described musically as ‘raga-rock’, I’m not sure it’s anywhere near that interesting. There’s a lot of overbearing strumming, and most of the intriguing sounds are buried in the murky mix.

Stipe has abandoned the more personal and intimate approach to lyric writing he adopted for ‘Up’, returning to the verbose, stream-of-consciousness style with which most listeners will be more familiar. Sometimes he is simply trying to squeeze too many words in and any sense of meaning, or even the intended thrill is obfuscated by the lack of real phrasing. It’s been a long time since his lyrics were rendered this unintelligible on record. His voice is hardly treated at all, and is hence closer to the more ragged growls of live performances than the clear, smooth sound of recent REM studio work. He remains a compelling performer throughout, but I frequently find myself frustrated at the relative lack of emotional directness on ‘Accelerate’. Again, only ‘Hollow Man’ seems daring enough to present a personal theme. Mind you, if Stipe’s own propaganda is to be believed, he’s never written about himself at all.

I tend to prefer REM at their most esoteric. Unfortunately, there’s nothing here to compare with the heady clamour of ‘Walk Unafraid’, the unrestrained desperation of ‘Country Feedback’, the warped sea shanty of ‘The Apologist’ or the murky undertow of ‘Let Me In’. There’s little of the enigma or peculiarity of their early IRS material either. Only ‘Houston’, with its ragged, nasty distorted organ really comes close to something fascinating and unexpected, but it ends abruptly without really having evolved or journeyed anywhere.

Whilst these songs are not actively bad, and the concise running time makes it all zip past swiftly, it feels somehow unsatisfactory and one-dimensional. It doesn’t help that it sounds like it was recorded in a nuclear bunker. REM are massively wealthy men now, with popularity surely no longer a major concern. They could follow the example of Bruce Springsteen in pursuing some less predictable artistic avenues. I’d even like to see them extricate themselves from their Warner Bros contract and pursue some of the more exciting strategic opportunities exploited by the likes of Radiohead (and, more recently, The Raconteurs and Gnarls Barkley). Most significantly, I’d like to see them stop reacting to the demands of others (‘Around the Sun’ was seemingly a response to demands for them to make a modernised ‘Automatic…’, whilst ‘Accelerate’ is the response to that creative and commercial failure) and make an album that accurately captures their current artistic place and mindset. I still suspect that ‘Up’ was that record – and that some of its explorations should have been further developed.

Ironically, whilst this album seems designed to help REM fill stadium sized venues again, I imagine most of these songs would work best live, at smaller venue shows taken at a frantic and breathtaking pace. But don’t believe the hype – I’m unlikely to listen to this one over most of its predecessors.

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