I recently re-acquired New Adventures in Hi-Fi, finally completing my collection of R.E.M. albums. When I got to “Wake Up Bomb”—a song I haven’t heard in probably ten or twelve years—I suddenly got the itch to hear last year’s Accelerate. The general vibe of that song and the most recent album are similar—i.e., pretty straightforward rockers.
Now, the very fact that it made me want to hear Accelerate was a milestone in itself. Every few months I get the urge to listen one R.E.M. album or another; probably half the reason they’re one of my favorite bands is the very fact that I can never predict which album it is I’ll want to hear. Each craving is unique; I’m just as likely to want to hear Reveal as I am Document or Monster. It’s just the way it is! But until last Monday I’d never felt the calling for Accelerate since its new-album aura lifted last year.
Listening to Accelerate again after I don’t know how many months away from it, I felt like I was hearing it anew, without any of the weight of it being a New R.E.M. Album—“Will they turn it around?” “Will they continue to suck?” Not that it changed my ultimate assessment: it’s a mostly mediocre record. That’s what I thought last year, too, but I also thought it was, at the very least, far better than Around the Sun.
So I listened to Around the Sun again too.
Still their worst record, sure, but I did realize that I was undervaluing at least a couple of songs. That album’s second half is actually not too shabby—you just have to march through the at times turgid first half to get there.
Accelerate, it turns out, fails in a lot of the same ways Around the Sun does, just with faster tempos. They didn’t so much bounce back as dribble. It still manages to get bogged down in itself. It still has a wan middle section that is okay but not terribly exciting. And “Hollow Man”—my God, what an annoyingly maudlin song. (Whereas “I’m Gonna DJ at the End of the World” is merely annoying.)
Not to get too down on it—I love R.E.M., so discussions of their low points always need to be taken with a grain of salt—but I think the thing that bugs me the most about Accelerate is that there just isn’t a single song on here that I must listen to. Even Around the Sun, target for bile that it’s become, still contains a couple great tracks—especially “The Ascent of Man.” As far as post-Berry material goes, it’s one of the best songs they’ve done. At times I find myself craving that song, the same way I might crave “Find the River” or “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” or “Finest Worksong.” It’s one of those R.E.M. tracks that just pops into my head when it really has no business being there. Can’t say anything on Accelerate does that.
Then again nothing on Accelerate grates as much Around the Sun's Q-Tip abetted “Outsider.” That’s really how Accelerate manages to be better than its predecessor: none of its low points are as low. Goodie!
Listening to both records last week, I was frustrated by the fact that there are good songs on both—just that they're lost in the morass of the rest of their respective records. So I’m experimenting with making a fake R.E.M. album that combines my favorite songs from both. I suppose it doesn’t magically create some lost great R.E.M. album, but I always have fun goofing on this kind of stuff. What it does do is give some variety that is missing on both of those albums, and it makes at least a couple tracks pop in a way that they hadn't before—"Mr. Richards" feels more energized, and "Aftermath" seems to work better as a breezy antidote to the faster and harder Accelerate tracks rather than the sole uptempo number that can't rise above the morose Around the Sun. Here's the track list I've come up with. Try replicating it and tell me what you think.
Accelerating Around the Sun
2. Mr. Richards
3. The Ascent of Man
5. Living Well is the Best Revenge
7. High Speed Train
8. Sing for the Submarine
9. Leaving New York
10. Around the Sun