Every year, striving rock acts and feisty independent record labels, indefatigable fans and drink-cadging critics, converge on this Texas college town for the South by Southwest music festival. The event has mushroomed into a showcase for a gazillion variations on the next big thing, becoming such a media magnet that your average semi-obscure bar band may clock five or six gigs – on any given day.
So it was in Austin, of course, that Dark Meat – a 17-piece Mardi Gras party of a stomping, free-rock ensemble – celebrated its recent singing to Vice Records, with a chaotic blow-out. The outfit shared a bill with a half-dozen other groups from Athens, Georgia, all representative of that other Southern college burg’s unique place in rock history: The original “scene” town, which 30 years ago spawned a funky little dance combo called the B-52s, and shortly thereafter a flurry of quirky, DIY-minded bands with names like Love Tractor, Pylon, Oh-OK, and R.E.M, was as vital as ever. The scene, as such, has shifted from buzz city to buzz city. Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, Omaha, and, right now, Brooklyn, among others, have enjoyed their seasons as focal points for the zeitgeist. But the contemporary concept of geography as a kind of indie-rock destiny began in Athens.
SXSW was as strong a reminder of this. Even as Dark Meat (enthusiastic, a bit gimmicky) was winding down its set, the members of R.E.M. were getting ready for a gig a few block away. As an opening act, they had tabbed another young band from Athens, the excellent Dead Confederate, which mysteriously melds Pink Floyd dreaminess with Lynyrd Skynyrd blooziness.
It’s unlikely R.E.M. would call it a comeback, but someone obviously felt a need to reassert their willingness to rock, and to do so in the same amiably scruffy, beer-sodden environs that first launched them to critical and, eventually, commercial prominence in the 1980s. Much as their old neighbors the B-52s, R.E.M. has a new album to promote, and Austin proved an ideal platform to signal the band’s return to foursquare, guitar-based rock. “Accelerate,” which is released April 1, finds R.E.M. sounding like R.E.M. again. Or, at least, sounding like the R.E.M. of its late-1980s breakout period, when albums like “Life’s Rich Pageant” and “Green” took the quartet out of the college bars and into the arenas.
The band’s show at Stubb’s Barbecue, as heard on a streaming feed from the National Public Radio website (npr.org), conveys a certain wisdom that groups of R.E.M.’s vintage can bank on. There’s no need to reinvent a trademark sound. Just stick with what always worked. “Accelerate” is the first studio album from vocalist Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills since 2004’s dismal “Around the Sun.” And it’s the first R.E.M. album since original drummer Bill Berry left the group in 1997 that isn’t tricked out with keyboards, electronic noodling, and artificially sweetened popcraft that seemed to abdicate the beat that Mr. Berry took with him.
Not surprisingly, the band’s record sales have been in a tailspin since its heady days of early ‘90s glory – when songs like “Losing My Religion” and “Man on the Moon” secured global mass-market affection, yet refined the band’s idiosyncrasies into compassionate art. Watching R.E.M. meander towards nostalgia-dom the past few years called to mind something recently said by Thurston Moore, guitarist for Sonic Youth, the New York art-rock act whose more pointedly outré career has paralleled the Georgia group’s. Mr. Moore suggested that his band broken up years ago, and then reunited, they might ensure a bigger payday and be more popular than ever. In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine R.E.M. calling it quits on New Year’s Eve 1999, which once was rumored to happen, deciding that without Mr. Berry, they really were “a three-legged dog,” as Mr. Stipe has quipped, and should seek new horizons.
That didn’t happen, though for many fans and critics it might as well have. Sitting by while peers like Bono saves the world and Radiohead reinvents the wheel can’t feel too good. So
the urgency of “Accelerate,” and of R.E.M.’s strident and jangle-happy Austin showcase, feels genuine. It’s just too bad the songs aren’t better. Mr. Stipe, who once kept listeners scratching their heads to decipher lyrics that felt like surrealist poetry, has long since adopted a declamatory style that too often underscores how banal his lines are. New tracks like “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “Horse To Water” suggest the singer has never met a cliché he didn’t purloin, even if the beautifully aggressive mesh of Mr. Buck’s guitar with the rhythm section captures the youthful buoyancy of prime R.E.M. “Supernatural Superserious,” the album’s first single, is even more regrettable, as Mr. Stipe sings about “the humiliation of the teenage nation.” Huh? Save it for Hannah Montana.
The bumper-sticker sentiments aren’t new to R.E.M., and in some cases, the band’s impassioned punch combines with Mr. Stipe’s fiery testimony in ways that you don’t want to resist, especially when Mr. Mills lends his choirboy’s counter-tenor to echo the main vocal lines. As R.E.M. efforts go, “Accelerate” is the band’s best work this decade, but once you peel back the layers of guitar, it’s not nearly as emotionally affecting as the disquieting murmurs of 1999’s underrated “Up,” whose ambient pop tinkering dressed up heartfelt ambiguities in the wake of Mr. Berry’s departure. At his best, Mr. Stipe negotiates uneasy truces between the particular and the universal (“That’s me in the corner/That’s me in the spotlight”), and narrates what it feels like to be caught between them. “Accelerate” tries so eagerly to deliver on its promise that it zooms right past what makes R.E.M. really great.