Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hold tight your babies and your guns

R.E.M. release their new album, Accelerate, next week, but it is streaming for free over at iLike, so I have been spending some time cozying up with it. As I have said many times, R.E.M. is my favorite band, and so a new release brings great excitement. But this new release comes with even more excitement, as everything I have read and heard indicates a "return to form," whatever that means. Personally, I have found a lot to admire in some of their recent releases, though the last one, Around the Sun, was a big letdown. But that is old, and so on with the new.

So this is not so much a proper review, but rather some first impressions.

"Living Well's the Best Revenge"
The opening guitar truly sets the mood for this album. And then Michael Stipe starts yell-singing some politically charged tirades ("The future's ours and you don't even read the footnote now"), and I remember screaming along to "These Days" and "Orange Crush" the first time I saw R.E.M. live. And if a song can bring up those memories, then I am happy. Baby, I am calling you on that.

"Man-Sized Wreath"
Song two again starts with some driving electric guitars. Peter Buck is getting a workout so far. And once again, Stipe belts out his anger at false patriotism and the like. I am especially fond of the brief musical surge in each verse after Stipe yells "Oww!" And a subtle background speaking voice adds a disconcerting tone to an otherwise poppy rock song.

"Supernatural Superserious"
I have already mentioned how much I like this song. This, the first single, made me superexcited for the album, and the song has only grown on me since. Mike Mills and his signature backing vocals help make this a Monster-era delight.

"Hollow Man" ****
"Hollow Man" begins with a beautiful lone piano, and Stipe's ever-more-gravelly voice plaintively singing, "I've been lost inside my head." Is this going to be a ballad? No. The song crescendos almost immediately and then becomes a roller coaster of self-reflection: "I'm overwhelmed / I'm on repeat / I'm emptied out / I'm incomplete." "Hollow Man" may be my favorite song on the album.

Now this is a dark and somber song. I cannot really describe the pulsating and sawing sounds of the low strings in this song, but it kind of reminds me of either a train in very bad shape or of loggers cutting down a tree. A very interesting and disquieting effect.

This song is loud. Like early R.E.M. songs, the music takes the lead over the vocals, and in fact this song sounds like it could have come from either Monster or Fables of the Reconstruction, two albums which are quite unlike each other. This one may take me a few more listens.

"Until the Day is Done" ****
What a gorgeous and angry song this is. Stipe once again expresses his feelings about the state of the nation, but the strumming guitar, rhythmic piano, and melancholy melody bring a different tone. Lush, dark, and somber, "Until the Day is Done" reminds me of some of R.E.M.'s finest moments over the years. A must.

"Mr. Richards" ****
I don't know who Mr. Richards is, but I love this song. The bass really drives the song forward, but the melody of the song touches on something glorious. I feel like there is something a bit 60s-esque about the vocals and melody, but I cannot quite figure out what it reminds me of. This one will be played often on my iPod.

"Sing for the Submarine"
Another sort of minor-chord gem . . . I am not sure what the title is all about, but this song has some really interesting musical elements, including a strange choir-like backing vocal on the chorus. And Stipe explicitly mentions past R.E.M. songs in his lyrics, adding a bit more mystery to an already mysterious song.

"Horse to Water"
"Horse to Water" is raucous, rollicking, full-on rock song full of piss and vinegar and loudness. Oh, and metaphors. Good work.

"I'm Gonna DJ"
. . . at the end of the world. Short, tight, full of energy and feedback. This is a fitting way to end Accelerate.

(**** = first-listen favorites)

And I am a happy man.


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