The secret to success for R.E.M., like all great rock bands, is balance.
Great front men only take you so far - same goes for great songwriters or great guitarists. One may get you a good band, but all of them are needed for greatness.
"Accelerate" (Warner Bros.) marks R.E.M.'s return to greatness, a return to singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist-singer Mike Mills all pulling hard in the same direction. By road-testing all the songs and honing them to pack maximum punch in two- or three-minute bursts, R.E.M. eliminates the filler and sometimes meandering flourishes of their recent work.
The opening one-two-three punch of "Living Well Is the Best Revenge," "Man-Sized Wreath" and the first single, "Supernatural Superserious," puts any doubts to rest. This is the best the band has sounded in 10 years, since 1998's "Up," their first album as a trio after drummer Bill Berry left for health reasons.
"Living Well" features Stipe spitting out taunts ("Don't turn your talking points on me, history will set me free") and insults ("The future's ours and you don't even rate a footnote now") as cranky as Buck's revved-up guitar, while Mills' soothing harmonies try to tame the snarl.
R.E.M.'s regained balance shows up in song selection as well, with the apocalyptic party-starter "I'm Gonna DJ" and the catchy pop of "Supernatural Superserious" offsetting more superserious concerns in the defiant, post-Katrina prayer "Houston" and the chiming, mourning folk-rock of "Until the Day Is Done."
The political interests are like those of the downtrodden guitar ballads of "Around the Sun," but the tone is completely different. It's as if Stipe, having tested all the songs out on various audiences, knows that these particular calls will bring reinforcements - not just his bandmates, but the legions of R.E.M. fans who have been waiting for a reason to come home to the college-rock pioneers.
"Accelerate" offers plenty of those reasons and throws in a little extra swagger to ensure everyone has a good time.