I was thinking about the parallel careers of R.E.M. and U2 the other day. The both started at around the same time: R.E.M. on an indie label and U2 on a major. R.E.M. was a college band loved by critics but not really a big seller. U2 had some huge hits in their early days and slowly grew to be college darlings too. Then in 1987, they both hit it big time: R.E.M.’s Document had “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and “One I Love” and of course, U2′s The Joshua Tree was the hugest album in the world.
R.E.M. and U2 became the hugest bands of the 1990s, selling millions of copies of records, becoming the biggest most famous people in the world (well, the singers did anyhow). And then in the 2000′s, something happened. U2 became even bigger and R.E.M. sort of drifted. And their records got critically panned. Even if they had a hit or two, overall the records received very bad reviews.
I didn’t even bother picking up R.E.M.’s previous record (and I guess no one else did either…its their ONLY record not to go at least gold (and that includes their early IRS label stuff). So, who held out any hope for a new R.E.M. album?
Well, the good news came when I put on Accelerate. After the initial guitar lick, the bass kicked in and Sarah said “Is that R.E.M.?” Now THAT’s a good sign. And it is. This album is the closest they’ve come to classic R.E.M. in a long time. I’ve concluded that the defining characteristic of R.E.M. is not Michael Stipe, it is Mike Mills. It’s his basslines and his glorious backing vocals that make a song stand up and say R.E.M. And, they’re usually the most interesting parts of the songs. (His “It’s time I had some time alone” is such a great counterpoint to “It’s the End of the World…” that the song wouldn’t be half as good without it.) This is not to say that Mike Mills should be the lead singer or be placed more prominently, (he shouldn’t, he’s like a great supporting actor who would be too much if he was the lead), but his contributions make them even better.
And Accelerate is full of Mills, in ways that I feel have been absent in recent years. His high bass notes, his great backing vocals, it’s like the R.E.M. of old. Except that it isn’t. The difference here is that Peter Buck has not returned to the reverby, picked-guitar of old. He’s got more of the aggressive style of playing that he’s used on Monster and New Adventures… so what you get is a classic R.E.M. updated for the 21st century.
Another thing that is great about this record is its length. At just over 30 minutes, it’s one of R.E.M.’s shortest releases. And, after some of the bloated discs they put out lately, it’s a great change of pace–because really nothing overstays its welcome like too much R.E.M. I mean Reveal has some good songs on it, but after six or seven tracks you can’t believe there are still six more to go. But on Accelerate, none of the songs overstay its welcome; many of them could go on even longer (always the sign of a good song)–5 of them are under three minutes long!
But enough bashing R.E.M. Accelerate is a short blast of rocking pop. In fact, the first 3 songs are the best songs I’ve heard from R.E.M. in years. They’re all catchy, rocking and wonderful. They state their purpose and they get out. “Houston” is the only slow song on the record…it harkens back to some of the very earliest R.E.M. songs in that it has more of folksy feel than anything else. But lest you think the album is doomed to fall into a slowing-down death knell, the title track comes next. And no one writes a ballad called “Accelerate.” The song is just as fast and furious as the opening tracks, and just as catchy.
The album ends with “Horse to Water” a song that really sounds like it could be from an earlier record. And “I’m the DJ” which continues with R.E.M.’s end of the world fetish.
And there you have it, the best R.E.M. album in years, possibly one of the best CDs of the year period. Comparisons to U2 are all well and good, even if they’re not fair. And although U2 are riding at one of the higher points of their career, and I’ve liked their last few records, none of them have moved me like Accelerate has. So, thanks for not giving up fellas.
[READ: August 20, 2008] Slam
The only things I knew about this book before I started it were that Nick Hornby wrote it and it was his first YA novel. I couldn’t even tell from the title what it was about. So, imagine my surprise to find out it was about skating (that’s skateboarding to you) and prominently features quotes from Tony Hawk’s Hawk: Occupation: Skateboarder (the book with two colons in the title!). And how surprised was I to see where the book eventually wound up! (More on that shortly).
So, the story is told from the POV of Sam Jones, a sixteen-year old English skater. He worships Tony Hawk (TH) and talks to him all the time (well, he talks to the poster of him that hangs in his room). And Tony talks back (well, Sam has read Hawk so much that he quotes from the book as Tony’s responses to Sam).
Sam is something of a loner, with only a few friends down at the skate bowl (Rabbit and Rubbish are their names). Rubbish is called that because he’s rubbish at skating, hee! Sam is also getting better at skating but he’s not great or anything. Rabbit is good at skating but has rubbish for brains. Sam just can’t talk to him (which is fine because you’re supposed to skate there, not talk)
Sam’s back story is fairly simple: his mum got pregnant when she was 16. She married his dad. They had Sam and then split up about ten years later. Sam lives with his mum (who is only 32…which leads to many funny moments, especially from Rabbit) and sees his dad only occasionally (but his dad is pretty rubbish at beign a dad, too).
Sam starts dating Alicia, a pretty young girl who lives nearby but doesn’t go to the same school (Their mums both work for the council, although Alicia’s family is posh and Sam’s is not). When Alicia’s mum has a party, Sam’s mum suggests he should go so he could meet the daughter. After some tough moments, they hit it off and begin seeing each other. All the time. So much time that Sam stops skating as much. Enough of the time that Sam’s mum is concerned for him.
And then, seemingly as quickly, the magic fades and Sam begins skating more. Until, and as I write this, it seems inevitable, Alicia calls him to tell him that she is pregnant. And so, Sam is following in his mother’s footsteps.
At this point the book takes a fun twist…Tony Hawk zooms Sam into the future to see what his life will be like with a baby. He lives two separate days without knowing at all what is going on: is he going to college? why is his son named “Roof”? and is his mother pregnant?! It’s fun to see Sam muddle through the future when neither he nor we know just what is going on.
When he returns to normal time, there’s a lot of arguing: with his mom, with Alicia, with her parents (who basically think that he’s a worthless skater bum (subtext: because he’s poor)), and even with a guy at college (well, that comes later) but mostly with Alicia.
The rest of the story is about teens having a baby. And it is a roller coaster portrayal: mostly negative and yet with some really heartwarming positives. But make no mistake, even though things don’t go horribly wrong, Hornby is not advocating teen parenthood. But I think that if the story was all just bad news, a) no one would read it and b) it wouldn’t feel real. Because even in a horrible, life demolishing situation, there are some good times, and even some good days.
Despite the heavy subject matter, the novel itself still retains a lot of humor. I would even say trademark Hornby humor. Sam is not a smart kid, but he is wise, and his views of what’s happening around him are often very funny. And, of course, Hornby is well versed in pop culture, so those references abound and make the novel more real…coffee at Starbucks, the age of Jennifer Aniston…listening to Justin Timberlake or Green Day while about to give birth…it fills out the story so well.
It’s interesting to me that this is a YA novel because the scene where Alicia gives birth, and some of the scenes when Sam is with his kid (in the future and in the present) are totally moving. But they’re moving to me because I’m a parent and I read those scenes and knew exactly what he was talking about. It brought a tear to my eye more than once thinking about my kids doing those things. I’m sure that teens can’t appreciate those scenes (unless they have been there), so, are they missing out on anything? Does it come as simply a cautionary tale? I’m very curious to know what teens would think of such a book. But as an adult, I thought it was great.
I’ve enjoyed everything by Hornby that I’ve read, and I really enjoy his column in The Believer. So, I didn’t think I’d be dissappointed by Slam, I’m just surprised by how good of a book he wrote for a new audience. (Although, come to think of it, High Fidelity was all about a state of arrested development anyhow, right?)