When R.E.M. were recording their new album, frontman Michael Stipe decided that he wanted to call it Future Tense, a title that would've worked on at least two different levels.
For one, a lot of the songs he'd written for the record dealt with the ideals he'd clung to when he first formed R.E.M. back in 1980 — youthful optimism, the belief that music could bring people together — and the way those ideals translated into being a band in 2008, a time when everything feels fractious and chaotic and pretty much irrevocably broken. Speaking or thinking in the future tense ("We will overcome," "We must continue"), he reasoned, seemed rather naive.
On the other hand, he also found himself writing about the current state of our nation — about the mess in Iraq, the Katrina recovery — and about the legacy George W. Bush will leave behind when he exits the White House in January. Stipe foresaw a series of messes that could take decades to clean up. He foresaw the future. And it will be tense.
"There's an energy and an urgency to the record," said Stipe. "To me it references a memory of punk rock, and the spirit of that, and what we all came out of, and what inspired us to start a band. It's not specific to the late '70s or anything like that, it's more of an imagined memory of that energy and that urgency. Couple that with the fact that I'm a very sentimental person, but I'm not necessarily nostalgic. And how memories affect me now, and in the future, is something that I find really interesting. And it's something I try to explore and exploit in my contributions to this band."
Of course, they ended up calling the record Accelerate (perhaps the biggest sign that after all these years, R.E.M. still operate as a democracy, not a monarchy), a title that has as much to do with all of the above — we live in an accelerated culture, where fears blow by at breakneck speeds — as it does with the way R.E.M. chose to make the record: loose, raw and in just nine hectic weeks. And they did this on purpose, because they had to.
"We had a clear directive," Stipe said. "We were communicating on a level we have not communicated on in some time, and I think we were saving the band, each of us. We each felt like this record was that important, to us and the future of R.E.M. and the legacy we leave. On our last tour in 2005, we looked at how the songs off Around the Sun really worked great live, more so than they did on the record. And we kind of set forth with an idea of how to make this record that way. So we did it really fast, and really raw and in your face."
"When [drummer] Bill [Berry] left the band [in 1997], it was one of those things like, all of a sudden, everything you know is wrong," added bassist Mike Mills. "We didn't know what kind of band we were. All of our methods of making records didn't exist anymore. So we made records we wouldn't have been able to make if Bill were still in the band, for better or worse. And in doing so, we were able to find our equilibrium and find out what it means for R.E.M. to be a three-piece band. And finally, it took us to this place where we were able to say, 'OK, that was fun, but enough of that. It's time to make a really fast rock-and-roll record. We've got nine weeks, and that's all we've got. '"
And that crackling, "live" feel is readily apparent throughout Accelerate — all 32 minutes of it — from the punchy guitars and breathy vocals of lead single "Supernatural Superserious" to the breakneck chorus of "Horse to Water" (which the band dubbed "The Joan Jett Song" during recording sessions). There are moments that recall jangle the band had in its nascent period, and moments that sound like fiery, late-'90's "What's the Frequency Kenneth." And there are moments that sound like the Replacements. But if you ask the members of R.E.M., they'll tell you it sounds like nothing they've ever done before.
"I think it's a better record than we've made recently, but we've never made a record this way. We never made one that sounds like this," said guitarist Peter Buck. "Even going back to Murmur, we didn't go into the studio and cut it live, real fast. For a first record, Murmur is totally overdubbed."
"People tell me it sounds like a return to form, but I don't understand that," added Mills. "We wouldn't even know how to return to anything at this point. I can't imagine anything less interesting than going back and doing something you'd already done before. This is R.E.M. 2008, nothing more, nothing less."
And the '08 version of the band isn't afraid of ruffling a few feathers, either. A trio of songs on the new album — "Houston," "Until the Day Is Done" and "Mr. Richards" — address the failures of the Bush administration and mistrust in the American political system as a whole. It seems that even after nearly 30 years, Stipe is still having no problem coming up with topics to sing about (or sacred cows to skewer).
"In the 28 years of writing songs, there are very few that are autobiographic. On this record, the only real part of me is in the song 'Until the Day Is Done,' which is looking at the mess the current administration had left this country with, and wondering how long it will take to dig ourselves out of it," Stipe added. "And then there's a song like 'Mr. Richards,' which, to be honest, you can pretty much pick any senior administration official of the current administration, and put them in the place of 'Mr. Richards.' He's one of those politicians that you really want to see behind bars."
Despite all the tension that went into making Accelerate, R.E.M. claim that they feel better (and closer) than they have in years. And because of that, they find themselves in a position most bands of their stature — and tenure — don't these days: promoting a record that's every bit as good as everything they've done in the past, which, given their back catalog, is a pretty impressive feat.
"I'm just totally thrilled by the fact that we got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame last year, and we had this record just sitting there ready to come out of us," Mills said. "So it's exciting to know that you can be recognized for a body of work, and to be able to come out with something that's just as good as anything you've done in the past. That's phenomenally thrilling to me."
Accelerate, due April 1, is the band's 15th album.