While I have something of a penchant for British rock bands (I’m biased, but I still think over the last 50 years a greater proportion of truly excellent songwriting has come from this side of the Atlantic than the other), there are still many North American bands I like. One that I’ve stuck with pretty much since I first had a CD player is REM - I own every one of their studio albums and on the whole have always enjoyed them. The last 2 albums (Reveal in 2001 and Around the Sun in 2004) were a bit weak - a couple of interesting songs on each but generally they appeared to have lost their edge, descending somewhat into repetition and an overly melancholy, inward-looking style which often suppressed both the music and the impact of the statements being made. REM have always been political (see World Leader Pretend, Orange Crush), but there was always an energy / edge to their tracks that has been sorely lacking in recent years - it’s almost as if you could perceive the disenchantment and despondency, like someone who still held on to their beliefs but had given up being able to go against the flow. Was it age, fatigue, the ascendency of the Bush administration, all of the above?
I wonder then if it’s a coincidence that they seem to be emerging a little from this cloud as the political wheel turns again in the US - Stipe has certainly declared himself for Obama, and in a recent interview seemed to have a new optimism that has been missing from his recent work. On a purely musical basis, Accelerate certainly seems like a return to form, or at least a major move in that direction - it sees the resurgence of a more energetic, urgent set with the driving basslines, ringing guitar riffs, and great vocal combinations of the sort we haven’t heard since Monster or some tracks on Up ten years ago. I get the sense though that they had to consciously try to get back to where they are with this album though, as opposed to it being a natural outpouring of talent & opinion, as it felt in years gone by. And while Supernatural Superserious is a great first single, I do find that it feels a tiny bit over produced, lacking some of natural edge you find in the classics - that’s also the case for the rest of the album, if to a lesser extent. With most of the songs you can trace the history to one of the previous albums - a little bit of Green here, a little bit of Automatic there, a splash of Document thrown in. Of course this is no bad thing, there is inspiration here from some of REMs best albums, so the stylistic rejoiner is something to be celebrated - but if I’m really ruthless, it feels a little like an engineered return to form, which nags at the edges of your perception a little if you’re a long-time fan. However, there’s no denying this is the best album from REM in years, and if they use this as a route back to their ‘centre’, when each album did something new but carried with it something other than mostly negativism, then all the better.