Saturday, March 29, 2008

Who Else Is Nervous? R.E.M.'s Upcoming Album

R.E.M.’s new album is coming out April 1. Entitled Accelerate, it follows hot on the heels of Around the Sun, which, um, stunk out loud.

I’m willing to bet many R.E.M. fans are nervous as hell. Maybe it’s because, to these ears, every R.E.M. album released since the underrated New Adventures In Hi Fi has been an unholy mixture of annoying blips, bleeps, and bloops that are oddly reminiscent of actor Michael Winslow (think Spaceballs). Maybe it’s because I have a lingering fear, perhaps shared by many R.E.M. fans but vocalized by few, that the band is simply irrelevant in the current music scene, or worse, incapable of delivering a quality album. Maybe it’s because I’m hesitant to pour more money into the iTunes beast for another underwhelming album from Stipe and Co.


But I simply cannot shake the feeling that many fans want Accelerate to be a great album for other reasons. For many music fans, R.E.M. was our first serious music addiction. Although I got into the game late – I was barely a teenager when I bought my first R.E.M. album, Out Of Time, in 1991 – I quickly devoured the back catalog and with much glee bought the concert tickets, t-shirts, and singles (“the b-side is a 1992 live performance of “Radio Free Europe”? They never play that! I gotta have it!”). I had much to learn.

Like many other R.E.M. junkies, my favorite concert memories are also tied to the band. The 1995 Monster tour stop in St. Louis was the first concert my brother and I attended. We blasted Automatic For The People from the car speakers as we drove (as much as you could blast that album, anyway). My friend showed up late due to his high school football game, still wearing his uniform, and only managed to hear the last few songs. His twin sister was even escorted out of the amphitheatre for, putting it in PG terms, inappropriate behavior during “Bang and Blame.” Even with this jail bait hiccup to deal with later, he was thrilled just to be there. To me, such devotion made total sense.I’ve been hooked on R.E.M. for the better part of my life. But like a trout plucked from the water by an enterprising fisherman, the problem is that the hook is now securely wedged into my lip. And it’s kinda painful.

The R.E.M. faithful among us who aren’t total jocksniffers haven’t had much to cheer for in more than a few years. It’s certainly been tough for R.E.M. fans. The occasional concert tour aside – as a live band R.E.M. still delivers the goods, even if Stipe does an excessive amount of posing and posturing – the band has been the equivalent of an 8-8 NFL team: some highs, some lows, and nothing much to get excited about.

Shows such as Family Guy and Saturday Night Live have taken potshots at the band (of course, if any show should refrain from making jokes about anything being irrelevant. it’s SNL). Sure, some aspects of R.E.M. are very easy to mock (Stipe’s tiny, bald, and looks like a low-rent stand-in for Mr. Clean), but I can’t help but think the jokes would have been far fewer if the band had released better albums in the last decade.I want Accelerate to be a great album. I want to again be reminded why R.E.M. essentially kick-started my addiction as a music fiend. I want to listen to a new R.E.M. album without feeling that I’m listening to a once-great band treading water at best and sinking fast at worst. And especially, I want the friends, acquaintances, and sworn enemies who come out of the woodwork to mock and humiliate me every time the band releases a new album to remain quiet for once.

I’m avoiding all pre-release reviews for Accelerate. I’m even avoiding the live shows where the new songs have been road tested. For all I know, advance reviews are gushing over the album like they did for Bruce Springsteen’s Magic or Neil Young’s Trans (wait, scratch that one). When April 1 arrives, I’ll join the legion of R.E.M. fans with crossed fingers as we listen to the new album and hope for the best...

I just hope we aren’t disappointed again.

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