Punk is worthless. Like its cousin from the other side of the tracks, rap, punk could be zapped from existence without so much as a “beg pardon” from civilization. Accelerate, R.E.M.’s 14th album, was going to be the bellwether that spurred the end of this notion. I had it all mapped out in my head: Even though punk is not an end in itself, it is the means by which R.E.M. sprouted, so it has value; it has worth. In the countless interviews Peter Buck and Michael Stipe have given over the years, they have paid homage to punk, so it was all going to be nice and smooth and logical and flush with support. But during a stop at The Colbert Report on their colossal promotional tour for Accelerate, Stephen Colbert asked Stipe who their main influences were, and he responded “Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground.” As Colbert readjusted himself on a preposterously tall stool, taking another clever stab at the preposterously large egos of the right wing cads he lampoons perfectly, the English Professor in methat is my job 50 hours a weekstarted to take over. While many arguments make walloping leaps from one point to another, some suffer from one step too many. The original argument runs this way: Smith and Lou Reed create punk; punk creates R.E.M.; R.E.M. creates indie rock. If you draw this out on paper, you are quick to realize punk is an unnecessary step: Patti Smith and Lou Reed create R.E.M; R.E.M. creates indie rock. Punk is thusly worthless.
It’s not enough to be loud, obnoxious, and pissed off; musicians need to be good at music. They also need to know when it is time to say “We’re going to slow things down for a minute.” Musicians need to know when it is time to break out the acoustic guitars, the pianos, perhaps even a mandolin or two. Bass players need to be melodicians, like Mike Mills, not some wanker quarter-noting the root with a pick and without a rhythm. R.E.M. figured this out long ago, and the direct result is the success of Accelerate. If all of the tracks were like the out-of-breath sprint, “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” then the album would sound like a mid-life crisis. (The band members do have a median age of about 50.) “Hollow Man,” “Houston,” and “Until the Day Is Done” demonstrate that while R.E.M. tried to make a punk album, their intelligence and taste just wouldn’t let them do it. Accelerate may have started out as a celebration of punk. It ended as a denunciation.
Michael Stipe is an intellectual, emotional, well-read, psychologically complex individual, and he’s in fine lyrical form on Accelerate. I’ve never understood why bands include printed versions of their lyrics within liner notes. Most sung lyrics fall flat on the silent page, but Stipe’s poetry is wallpaper worthy. On “Man-Sized Wreath” he sums up the need for all media to stop immediately: “turn on the tv, what do I see? a pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me.” If you think about so many in the media, whether they be broadcasters, journalists, or reality TV stars, and think of how many Americans worship their every move, all you will see is a pageantry of empty gestures. Stipe’s lyrics can be unpacked and unpacked, but they can also be left alone. The first single off the album, “Supernatural Superserious,” is the kind of song I would not have understood as a teenager, but it would have helped me through some tough times. With Accelerate, R.E.M. has made the type of album they could have made in 1985. They have taken all the energy and angst of punk and added the missing ingredient: art.