For years, R.E.M. promised that their next album would be a rocker, an oath to fans that perhaps made sense during the early '90s, when they were exploring the pastoral fields of Out of Time and the gloomy folk of Automatic for the People, but in the years after Bill Berry's 1997 departure, the desire of longtime fans for the group to rock again was merely a code word for the wish that R.E.M. would sound like a band again. Apart from a few fleeting moments -- "The Great Beyond," their "Man in the Moon" re-write for the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic, Man in the Moon; "Bad Day," a mid-'80s outtake revived for a greatest-hits album -- R.E.M. not only didn't sound like a band, but they seemed at odds with themselves and their very strengths, culminating in the amorphous, mummified Around the Sun, a record so polished and overworked it didn't sound a bit like R.E.M., not even like the art-pop outfit the band turned into after Berry's retirement. It was a situation so dire that the band recognized the need for corrective steering, so they stripped themselves down to bare-bones for 2008's Accelerate.
In every way Accelerate is the opposite of Around the Sun: at 36 minutes, it's defiantly lean, it's heavy on Peter Buck's guitars and Mike Mills backing vocals, its songs don't drift, they attack. Even the songs constructed on acoustics feel like they're rockers, maybe because they hearken back to the eerie, ramshackle grace of "Swan Swan H" whose riff echoes through both "Houston" and "Until the Day Is Done." This is not the only time that R.E.M. deliberately refers to the past on Accelerate, but reverential self-reference is the whole idea of this project: they're embracing their past, building upon the legacy and the very sound of such underground rock landmarks as Lifes Rich Pageant and Document. Not that this album could be mistaken for an exhumed classic from the '80s: Michael Stipe's lyrics are forthright and never elliptical, and the same could be said about the music, as it's sonically streamlined and precise, hallmarks of a veteran band. One of the benefits of being veterans is knowing how to create a record this focused, and Accelerate benefits greatly from its concentrated blast of guitars, as the brevity of the album makes R.E.M. seem vital even as they're dredging up the past. By no longer denying the jangle and pop that provided a foundation for the group's success, they sound like a band again.
Such praise dangerously threatens to oversell Accelerate, however, suggesting that the album has either the unearthly mystique of Murmur or the ragged enthusiasm of Reckoning when it has neither. This is a careful, studied album from a band that knew they were on the brink of losing their audience and, worse, their identity. Accelerate finds R.E.M. attempting to reconnect with their music, with what made them play rock & roll in the first place, instead of methodically resurrecting a faded myth. They reconnect handsomely, creating an album the can stand next to work from their peers, like Dinosaur Jr.'s exceptional comeback Beyond and Sonic Youth's casually vital Rather Ripped (whose "Incinerate" reverberates in the dissonant open-ended "Accelerate"). As comebacks go, that's relatively modest, but the very modesty of Accelerate is what makes it such a successful rebirth as R.E.M. no longer denies what they were or what they are, and, in doing so, they offer a glimpse of what they could be once again.