Album Review: New R.E.M. lacks bite despite improvements

What a romantic idea: deeply-loved '80s college rock band rebounds after repeated failures with fresh new album that reinvents them. It's easy to get lost in this fairytale when listening to R.E.M.'s new release, Accelerate. But unfortunately for Michael Stipe and company, the band doesn't get off that easily.

Ever since original drummer Bill Berry quit the band in 1997, R.E.M. has never seemed to pick up the pieces and deliver the next dandy of mandolin-jangle rock candy that everyone knows they are capable of.

With Accelerate, R.E.M. does manage a sweet victory in that they finally sound like a cohesive band again. The album is blunt, to-the-point (at 36 minutes there sure isn't any flab to cut off) and focused. Stipe's voice has resisted the withering of age gallantly, and the three original members sound like they are enjoying themselves. Yet amongst all this, Accelerate simply manages to be good. No more, no less.

R.E.M. were relatively late peakers. Their best album (among many great albums) was 1992's Automatic for the People, one of the greatest rock albums of all time. It took the poppy gallop of early gems Murmur and Reckoning and twisted it into a dark, sarcastic snicker tinged with themes of mortality and loss. But most of all, it was breathtakingly consistent - not a single song failed to be memorable.

Accelerate is the opposite. R.E.M. is a great band, and like all great bands, they will always be reliable to write great songs. Accelerate's nuggets are made all the more obvious by its contrastingly subpar tracks. They are memorable because there are less of them. Take "Sing for the Submarine," a scarlet waltz of building momentum. It's a beautiful song, and it's sandwiched between the cheery yet two-dimensional "Mr. Richards" and the just plain forgettable "Horse to Water."

For another example, take the opening of the album. "Living Well is the Best Revenge" boasts the album's one great guitar riff, and "Man-Sized Wreath" follows it up with a tumbling, gleeful, bass-led melody. But two tracks later is "Hollow Man," which is, well, hollow.

Accelerate is a bittersweet release for R.E.M. It is, if such a thing is possible, an encouraging disappointment. Listening to it, especially at the better moments, makes you long for the memories of the band's past masterpieces. After listening to Accelerate for the first time, I immediately popped in Automatic just to remind myself how great this band truly is (or, if you're a pessimist, was). But Accelerate is encouraging because it signals that the band is finally on the right track. It's hardly fair to expect the band to make another Automatic or Reckoning, but if Accelerate accomplishes anything, it confirms that the band is once again a momentous force. Expect its follow-up to be even better.