R.E.M.: Accelerate (2008)
It's something I've been thinking about lately in connection with Wilco. I've got an article coming out shortly on the Toppermost site sharing my Top 10 Wilco songs (or, more accurately, a representative sampling of songs from across their career) and some personal thoughts on their discography. And it forced me to grapple with my impressions of their last few albums. It's easy for me to say, nah, those just aren't as good as the earlier stuff. Which may be true, at least for some of 'em. But in fairness, having released some of my favorite albums in Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and A Ghost Is Born, it's hard to imagine any new Wilco album winning me over completely. Their latest, the well-received Ode To Joy, has grown on me, but I don't spend the time I might otherwise spend getting to appreciate its understated charms when the temptation is always there to play the astounding Summerteeth just one more time.
Likewise R.E.M. As described elsewhere in these pages, not to mention in a chapter in my book Jittery White Guy Music, R.E.M. -- and specifically early albums Murmur and Reckoning -- truly changed my life. The first few albums, the delightful jangly guitar albums on the IRS label, will always be special to me. That said, unlike some purists, I continued to love the band after they hit the big time on Warner Brothers -- I think Green is underrated, Out of Time is solid, and Automatic for the People is wonderful, though admittedly a dramatically different sound than the one I first fell in love with. After that it's a bit more hit and miss. I was ok with the noisy, boisterous Monster, and found New Adventures in Hi-Fi to have some stellar moments (particularly "Electrolite," one of their most charming songs). But then drummer Bill Berry left the band, and, whether related or otherwise, I found the balance of their career dissatisfying; though even the albums I rarely listen to had some monumentally great tunes (like "Imitation of Life" on Reveal, and even "Leaving New York" on the otherwise lamentable Around the Sun).
Of the post-Berry albums, I probably like Accelerate best. In some ways reminiscent of Monster (but freed of some of the glam/grunge-like elements that polarized fans), it was a burst of electricity, mostly harder-rocking songs that represented a dramatic change of pace after the three quieter albums that preceded it. "Mr. Richards" is just about my favorite post-IRS-era song, a terrific, psychedelic hook that dug deep into my head. Raging rockers like "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" and "Man-Sized Wreath" and "Supernatural Superserious" are cathartic and catchy; the quieter, compelling "Houston" calls back to the Automatic/New Adventures era.
Now, if I'm in the mood to listen to R.E.M., am I going to reach for Accelerate? Not often; not when Murmur and Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction are sitting nearby on the shelf. But it confirms that R.E.M. managed to come up with new and interesting music right up until the end; and if I had never heard of the band, and this were the first album of theirs I heard, I might not quite understand the R.E.M. legend, but I think I would have liked it a lot. But that's all speculation, right?
I still buy pretty much every Elvis Costello and Neil Young album that comes out, but rarely listen to them, certainly relative to what each produced in their first decade, though each managed some great music well into their lengthy careers. Bowie did some great work in his later years. I loved 2013's The Next Day when it came out; but I don't think I've played it once in the past few years, while Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory and Space Oddity and Lodger remain in regular rotation.
It all makes you wonder whether Neil was right in proclaiming that it's better to burn out than to fade away. Big Star lasted a mere 3 proper albums, the Velvet Underground 4, and the Clash 5. Each has a pretty much perfect discography (ok, the Clash's Sandinista should've been trimmed, and we are not counting the post-Mick Jones Cut the Crap abomination). They didn't stick around long enough to piss off fans who didn't appreciate their evolving sound or failure to leap impossibly high hurdles. But then again, maybe they would've come up with a late-period call-back to early glories, or won over a new generation of fans with a commercial-sounding album that left older fans scratching their heads, driving new listeners to go check out their earlier masterpieces. We'll never know.
Here's "Mr. Richards":