As has been duly noted over the past month or so, R.E.M.’s career was experiencing something it hadn’t done in the first 20 years of their existence. Following the abominable Reveal and Around The Sun albums, long-term, devoted fans like myself were beginning to walk away. It seemed R.E.M. had, against all the odds, become a middle-aged, middle of the road band who were just going through the motions. The energy, the drive and the emotion that once upon a time made them the greatest and most exciting band in the world was seemingly gone, something the band themselves would later acknowledge.
“[Around The Sun] just wasn’t really listenable, because it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can’t stand it anymore.” (Peter Buck, 2008)
By 2008, four years after Around The Sun was inflicted upon us, I was at a musical crossroads. The White Stripes had broken up and there didn’t seem to be much that was terribly exciting going on in the pop universe. At least, nothing I could hang my hat on. I saw that R.E.M. were about to release a new album, so when the lead single Supernatural Superserious was released, I downloaded it mainly out of curiosity. What I heard was unexpected.
Some history first. In 2007, R.E.M. took up residency at the Olympia in Dublin. The plan was to rehearse new material in readiness for a new album. They decided to sell tickets so the fans could give their reactions, although as Michael Stipe insisted during each performance: “This is not a show!” (They preferred the term ‘working rehearsals’.)
Among the new songs was one entitled Disguised. It wasn’t finished, but it had promise. Before going into the studio, a new chorus was written, the old chorus became the bridge and the title was changed (on the advice of a certain Chris Martin). On 11th February, 2008, it became the first single released from R.E.M.’s 14th album Accelerate.
Could it be? R.E.M. sounding like they still had something left to give? I mean, it wasn’t their best song by a long chalk, but it was way better than anything their previous two albums had yielded, and (Animal aside) was their best song of the decade so far. Supernatural Serious had that energy, that drive, that verve. It also had an infectious tune that hung around in my head for hours after hearing it. This was the sound of a band who actually sounded like they were enjoying themselves again.
But was it to be a false dawn? I approached Accelerate with caution, downloading it (for *ahem* free) rather than rushing out to buy it. But as it turned out, this really was a return to form. For starters, all the electronic mush that plagued their previous two albums was gone – it was a stripped-down, back-to-basics rock & roll record with few embellishments. It was also recorded faster than any album the band had worked on since Green. Most of the songs retained the single’s energy, all aggressive guitars and swagger – the antithesis of Around The Sun. At a mere 34 minutes, it was R.E.M.’s shortest album since Lifes Rich Pageant, their loudest and rockiest since New Adventures in Hi Fi, and their best post-Bill Berry album by a country mile.
As for the single, well the charts in the UK were becoming increasingly irrelevant to proper bands. Albums were now the more important format for serious artists and physical singles were no longer regarded as anything of real importance. Supernatural Superserious charted at #54 in the UK singles charts in its first week on downloads alone. CD singles were released the following week but that didn’t improve the chart position. It was their last significant chart entry in the UK.
Both CDs included a surfy-instrumental track (yes, even 27 years after White Tornado appeared on the band’s first demo tape, they were still churning these silly little pieces out). Airliner is most notable for its writing credits, being the first of only two R.E.M. songs to credit Scott McCaughey as co-writer alongside Buck, Mills and Stipe. The other one? We’ll get to that in a couple weeks…
mp3: R.E.M – Airliner
CD 2 added a cover version of Beat Happening’s Red Head Walking, the closing track from their 1991 album Dreamy. I’m not a fan of the original, so it’s great to hear R.E.M. transform it into a swampy, bluesy, psyche-fused beast of a song. Kind of like how The Cramps would have done it. I love Michael’s scream at the end and his subsequent regret…
It had been a long time since anyone had put the words ‘R.E.M.’ and ‘fun’ together in a sentence, but this was a sign that maybe, just maybe, they could still pull it off and regain some of the credibility they’d lost in recent years.
By the way, those ‘working rehearsals’ in Dublin were recorded and the highlights released as a 39-track album in 2009 as Live At The Olympia. Nine of the songs that ended up on Accelerate were included along with another two new songs that were never released in any other form. As a bonus for you, here’s the version of Supernatural Superserious that was played, still in its unfinished form with its original title.
JC adds…..I agree 100% with all that The Robster has written for today. I still give Accelerate a listen every now and again, especially when I was out doing the lockdown walks. At just 34 minutes in length, and with not really a duff track on it, it very much helped to pass the time in fine fashion.