With 2004’s Around the Sun, R.E.M. took it on the chin: Fans didn’t buy it, radio didn’t play it, critics didn’t like it. The band members were smart enough to recognize that the album had been too slow-paced and meandering, and they set out to correct their course. The first sound you hear on Accelerate, released in 2008, is Peter Buck’s distorted electric guitar, followed soon by a headlong tempo from bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Rieflin, and then a tumble of singer Michael Stipe’s pissed-off lyrics. The album keeps up that tone and fast pace for several songs, with Mills adding lively vocal countermelodies—a trademark R.E.M. touch the band had abandoned on previous albums. The song lengths tell the story—11 tunes in just 34 minutes. It’s an ancient punk rock idea: Rid your music of any excess. The album lives up to its title. Stipe was known for taking an indirect route with his lyrics, whether they were about love or politics, but he comes closer than he did previously to specifying why he’s angry: “The business-first Flat Earthers licking their wounds/The verdict is dire, the country’s in ruins,” he sings in “Until the Day is Done,” an acoustic, midtempo track that hisses softly at the protracted Iraq War, President George W. Bush, and the way money and religion steer politics. The acidic tone of his words brought out his most engaged performances in years. In spots, he’s even funny, as in “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” where he rhymes “apostles” with “nostrils.” Mills is back to being R.E.M.’s secret weapon: He plays a high-pitched organ accent on the rampaging “Man-Sized Wreath,” and contributes prominent backing vocals—"How you cried and you cried"—on “Supernatural Superserious,” a song about adolescent embarrassment. His keyboards make “Houston” feel more alarming; it’s a trick he repeats on the thick-riffed rocker “Accelerate,” where his bass runs uplift the song. In his lyrics to “Sing for the Submarine,” Stipe refers to several earlier R.E.M. songs, including the prime tracks “Electron Blue,” “Feeling Gravitys Pull,” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” The entire album refers to R.E.M.’s past, too, by returning to the band’s earlier, more vigorous style of music. That distinctive sound held so much beauty, fun, cleverness, nuance, and individuality that for longtime fans, Accelerate felt like looking through a high school yearbook, only without the bad haircuts.

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