A conversation last week about REM’s South By Southwest show resulted, yesterday afternoon, in me digging out my old copy of “Reckoning”. Apparently, they’d played “Second Guessing” (as well as “Auctioneer” from “Fables Of The Reconstruction”) at the show so, in preparation for the Albert Hall gig, I thought I’d revisit the album.
It still sounded fantastic, as you’d imagine. But it also made me feel better about only awarding “Accelerate” three stars in the last issue of Uncut. Every other review I’ve seen of the new album has given it four, and while it’d be a mistake to get preoccupied with the decisions of other critics, I did wonder a little: was “Accelerate”, as I thought, merely a good record? Or was it, as some others were saying, right up there with REM’s finest work?
One quick play of “Reckoning” made me think that I was right to be a little circumspect in my praise. And I have to say, last night’s gig confirmed it. I’ve been seeing REM live fairly regularly for the past 20 years, and the Royal Albert Hall last night was the show I’ve enjoyed least, by some distance.
It’s weird, thinking that “Up” and “Reveal”-era shows could have been better than one predicated on a much better album. In a swift 75 minutes, REM bash through nine of “Accelerate”’s 11 tracks.
But the problem is, they really do bash through them. “Living Well’s The Best Revenge” might make a fantastic helter-skelter opening to the album, but here it begins the show too quickly, too heavily and, thanks to the Albert Hall’s historically moody acoustics, too murkily. There’s a distinct sense that this is a band working very hard to appear revitalised, especially a trim and engaged Peter Buck flinging himself around the stage.
As they charge through the songs, however, the idea that this is an exultant return to what they do best seems less noteworthy than the prevailing air of professionalism. Here are five men in suits preparing some good new songs for a summer in the planet’s stadiums and arenas; beefing them up, battering the quicksilver charm out of them.
The chief culprit in all this, I think, is Bill Rieflin, whose steroidal drumming style was a distraction on that “REM Live” set from last year. Even on something as austere as “Houston”, his tricksy style makes me long for the stealth and economy of Joey Waronker, never mind the magisterial Bill Berry.
It is Rieflin who seems to be pushing the tempo along at a rare clip, so that the dynamism of many of the new songs – the exhilarating rush of “Accelerate” is one of its chief assets – is overplayed. Some survive, of course: “Man Sized Wreath”’s jagged thrust is still powerful. The sneaky punch of “Hollow Man” is effective, not least because of the minuscule but marvellous Byrds break conducted by Buck and Scott McCaughey. And “Horse To Water” is breathlessly terrific, perhaps benefiting from the sound engineers having had 55 minutes to sort out the mix following the muffled “Living Well’s The Best Revenge”.
That, more or less, is the new album sorted out. It pains me to get into a fannish rant about the selection of old songs, not least because I don’t want to be one of those clichéd old fans who listen to “Reckoning” before a gig and then drone on about how REM were much better in the ‘80s, before most people had the audacity to start liking them.
But it seems that the band have backed themselves into a strange position here, having tacitly encouraged the “return to form” propaganda that surrounds “Accelerate”. Most reviews – mine included – placed the new record as being squarely – calculatedly, you might suspect – in the tradition of “Lifes Rich Pageant” and “Document”. Tonight, though, it seems as if REM have chosen to try and reassert the quality of their later work.
The oldest song they play, in fact, is “Losing My Religion”, an admittedly wonderful version that involves Mike Mills going walkabout in the audience while Buck busies himself over his mandolin. Besides that, there’s “Drive” (with Michael Stipe yelping “Nobody tells you what to do,” disruptively), “Electrolite” (“Our Valentine to the 20th Century”, quicker than usual), “Final Straw” (quicker, again, and greeted with the sort of cheers that suggest at least some REM fans liked “Around The Sun”) and “The Great Beyond” (“This was a request – from me,” admits Stipe and, yeah, it’s a good song, but come on).
One of my mild criticisms of “Accelerate” was that it seemed to me the album REM felt obliged to make, rather than the one they necessarily wanted to make, so at least this refusal to dust down those ‘80s songs is a good way to flaunt their awkwardness and pride. It’d be disingenuous to suggest I wasn’t frustrated, though, not least when the live feed to Radio 2 ends, and the band return for encores.
“We’re off the radio now, so we can do whatever we want to,” announces Stipe, promisingly. “Second Guessing”? “Auctioneer”? No. What REM want to do is play a lead single off a recent album (“Imitation Of Life”), a track from the new album (the admittedly fine “Until The Day Is Done”, and the third one that Stipe has ostentatiously called “A beautiful song” tonight), talk for ten minutes about their experiences of the Albert Hall (Stipe discusses his beautiful suit and appears to be less contrived than usual, as if this season’s tour persona has yet to be fully formulated) and, finally, one of their biggest hits (“Man On The Moon”).
It’s good, but it doesn’t feel quite good enough. And it all leaves me with the impression of a band who are anxious to exploit and redeploy the astonishing riches of their history, but who also seem oppressed by that burden.
1 Living Well’s The Best Revenge
4 Man Sized Wreath
7 Hollow Man
8 Supernatural Superserious
9 Final Straw
10 Losing My Religion
11 The Great Beyond
12 I’m Gonna DJ
13 Horse To Water
14 Imitation Of Life
15 Until The Day Is Done
16 Man On The Moon