”You had placed your trust in me,” Michael Stipe sings on ”Hollow Man,” a self-effacing interlude on R.E.M.’s otherwise loud and proud 14th album, Accelerate. ”I went upside down/I emptied out the room in 30 seconds flat…” You’d almost think Stipe was apologizing for the room-clearing qualities of their last studio album, 2004’s somnolent Around the Sun. Ever since drummer Bill Berry left the band in ‘97, R.E.M. had essentially ceased to rock on record, and fans drifted away during mellow albums both great (Up) and prosaic (Reveal). But it wasn’t until the attenuated, keyboard-smothered Sun — where guitarist Peter Buck seemed to have gone on strike — that even hardcore defenders wondered if the group was begging to be put out of its misery.
But this time they signaled a will to live by hiring producer Jacknife Lee, who’d brought out the aggro side of those other alt-stadium rockers, U2 (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb). And damn if Accelerate doesn’t live up to its pedal-to-the-metal title. The opener, ”Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” starts with Buck’s ”Paperback Writer”-on-speed guitar riff and gets even better once Mike Mills’ high, McCartney-esque bass fills kick in. Yet it’s less the Fab Four’s ”I Feel Fine” than an ”It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” redux, thanks to Stipe spitting out his most rapid-fire delivery, cheerfully lashing out at journalists who’d counted them out. This kickoff is a breathless three minutes and 12 seconds, and many of the remaining songs clock in at closer to two — from ”Horse to Water,” a herky-jerky rave-up, to ”Houston,” a lovely but too succinct post-Katrina ballad. It all speeds by so quickly, you half expect to hear a traffic cop knocking on their window, asking where the fire is.
That four-alarm blaze R.E.M. are trying to get to is located somewhere around 1984, and they’re flooring it in reverse, in a sense, barreling back to the driving energy of their indie beginnings. But Accelerate doesn’t really sound nostalgic. Buck isn’t busting out the Rickenbackers; he’s playing aggressively melodic riffs again, yet they’re full of contemporary crunch and compression, not jangliness. Stipe’s also striving to make the album feel timely — railing against ”business first flat earthers” (”Until the Day Is Done”), among other anti-conservative broadsides. Occasionally his lyrics fall prey to politicized smugness, but mostly he commits to confronting tough times with a mixture of thoughtful self-examination and playful combativeness. ”You’re going down down down,” he promises any sparrers on ”Horse,” the punky high point, after describing himself as ”a bantamweight with a mouthful of feathers.” Heavyweight champeen or not, Stipe’s got his fighting spirit back, and so does his band. A-
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