Whoa. Deja vu.
Accelerate, R.E.M.'s first studio album in four years, sounds like something we've heard before. And that's a good thing.
Some artists can change their clothes, their sound and their name, and the money-slinging public will gobble it up (see: Gwen Stefani, Madonna, Sean-P-Diddy-Puff-Daddy-Doodle-Daddle-Combs.)
But R.E.M. is not Puff-Dizzle-Dog. The Athens, Ga., band rose to legendary status in the '80s on college radio with a super distinct sound — a little garage, a little far out, a lot catchy.
Then the guys fouled it up. They experimented with different sounds and nobody bought it. Their momentum petered, and critics panned their last album, Around the Sun. They faded away slowly, like a friend who marries the wrong person and stays inside the house all the time.
Accelerate is the divorce. Supported by Michael Stipe's shaky tenor warble, the album succeeds because it falls back on familiar ingredients that make for a big, fat, yummy R.E.M. cake.
The songs on Accelerate feel:
• Bouncy (remember: Stand, It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine), Radio Free Europe.)
The album's happy tempo won't let you doze on a road trip. Supernatural Superserious is a steering-wheel tapper with fuzzy, choppy guitar, perky drum rolls and harmonious background vocals. And on Horse to Water, Stipe spits out a word stew in his signature tongue twister style — "You stumble on glass-top table, TV's chewing shock gone cable, pump me up a bean stalk fable." Granted, Stipe's nimble tongue has slowed a bit since the End of the World days. But give him a break. He's pushing 50.
• Weepy (remember: Everybody Hurts, Night Swimming, The One I Love).
On Until the Day Is Done, the album's saddest sack, Stipe sings of babies and guns and a country in ruins. It's enough to make you drive across a lonely bridge to nowhere, cigarette drooping from mouth, tears clouding contact lenses. Enough to make you park at the shore, crank the volume and wail the song's sobby lyrics: "What have I done, what have I done?"
• Weird (remember: Shiny Happy People).
Just a little weird, though. Not so much that, say, a mortgage broker who rocks khakis and Crocs can't get into the groove. Sing for the Submarine, the album's longest cut at almost five minutes, feels like a folksy midnight romp. The heavy melody suggests a wizard-hat-wearing Stipe sacrificing his last album into a steaming cauldron. It's trippy. But no worries, mortgage guy, because then we move on to . . .
• Rocking (remember: all of the above).
On Accelerate's last track, a short, raging romp called I'm Gonna DJ, Stipe tells us what's up. "Hey steady, steady, I don't want to go until I'm good and ready."
Fine. Just don't go messing with the recipe.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)