10 Years Ago: R.E.M. Careens Into the Future With 'Accelerate'

On March 31, 2008, R.E.M. released its 14th studio album, Accelerate, in Europe. As the title implies, the record, which was released April 1 in North America, possesses great urgency. Songs such as “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “Horse to Water” careen and lurch forward on the strength of buzzing guitars, lithe bass lines and racing tempos. The goofy, dissonant “I’m Gonna DJ”—with lyrics such as “Death is pretty final / I’m collecting vinyl”—cloaks its apocalyptic messages in crunchy glam riffs that hark back to 1994’s Monster.

To many, Accelerate felt like a decided sonic nod to the band’s past. After all, the lead single “Supernatural Superserious” boasts clear-eyed guitar jangle, and the acoustic-led “Until the Day Is Done” has the kind of elegiac folk vibe the band favored on 1992’s Automatic for the People.

OF course, R.E.M. had been threatening to “go back to their roots” for years; it was a running joke among fans that the phrase would crop up during album pre-release promotional cycles. But vocalist Michael Stipe for one demurred when Uncut noted Accelerate sounded like “a cousin” to 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant and 1987’s Document.

“I’m really bad at looking backwards, and I’ve stated that a thousand times before,” he responded. “Even thematically, I had no idea where the direction the record would go. I try not to think, or overthink, what I’m writing about and let it come through me and be in some more unconscious voice.

“Thematically, I didn’t know ’til halfway through how the record was shaping up, and the different emotions that are touched on and the different scenarios that are played out in the record.”

Still, as the songs for Accelerate coalesced, the band did nod back to their early road warrior days. Over five nights in July 2007, R.E.M. hunkered down at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, and workshopped new songs and unearthed seldom-heard chestnuts (“Circus Envy,” “Kohoutek”) in front of a live audience.

As had been the case throughout R.E.M.’s history, a couple of these new songs (“On the Fly” and “Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance”) never made it past the live tryout to a studio record. But other future Accelerate songs, including “Man-Sized Wreath” and the title track, were vital.

In several other notable ways, Accelerate was a firm step forward. For starters, the band worked with producer Jacknife Lee, at the recommendation of U2 guitarist the Edge. Stipe, who had enjoyed Lee’s work with Snow Patrol and Bloc Party, told Pitchfork the producer was an asset in the studio.

“I think he’s got his own style, but more than anything, it’s probably just a directness, a straightforward way of communicating, which is something that the band, we were looking for in ourselves on this record. And he definitely has his own sound. I think he does, anyway. It’s a little different. He doesn’t necessarily come from rock music and so the universe that he collides with our universe is interesting.”

Accelerate is a pop album in the sense that the arrangements are (generally) compact and don’t skimp on hooks. But, if anything, Lee’s influence—when combined with the ferocity of studio drummer Bill Rieflin—ensured this record possessed the kind of velocity that was largely absent on R.E.M.’s previous studio album, 2004’s Around The Sun.

Accelerate is also full of biting, observant songs touching on society and politics. “Houston”—a song “filled with sadness,” Stipe told The Sun—refers to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

“I was writing from the point of view of someone who has barely survived Hurricane Katrina and then been displaced,” he explained. “Barbara Bush, the ex-First Lady and the president’s mother, said, ‘So many of the people were underprivileged anyway, so this is working well for them.’ Hello, Barbara, these are people who lost everything. I know people who lost family members, their homes, everything.”

In an odd twist, Accelerate feels extremely relevant to the post-2016 roiling political climate–even though Stipe told Huffington Post in 2008 that certain songs were written about the political chaos of that time. “All of the new songs are fictional. ‘Mr. Richards’ could be about any member of the current administration. “‘Living Well Is the Best Revenge’ is about the 24-hour, personality-driven news media. ‘Until the Day Is Done’ is about how the idea of America is so much greater than where this country has gone.

“The title of the album is tied to my conception of the 21st century as it has unfolded,” Stipe added. “I just thought we would have solved these problems by now. So here we sit, even as people feel, as I do, that things are moving way too fast. We are out of control.”

Accelerate landed at No. 1 on the album charts in Canada and the U.K., and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200, while the single “Supernatural Superserious” landed at No. 1 on the AAA charts. After the album’s release, R.E.M. embarked on what would be their last world tour as a band.

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