Four years ago, after R.E.M. had released Around the Sun, a textured album made up entirely of mid-tempo songs and ballads, guitarist Peter Buck was already predicting that the group's next album would mark a return to the rocking sound of earlier albums such as Monster and Out of Time.
Recalling that period, bassist Mike Mills points out the irony in Buck's prediction. "The funny thing is, believe it or not, we thought Around the Sun was going to be that way," says Mills of the album's studio evolution. "We got in there and started working on it, and it became something a little different. But yeah, we knew we wanted to make a rock record."
R.E.M. has finally made good on that intention with Accelerate. The crisp, hard-rocking 11-song release, critics seem to agree, is in a class with anything the group from Athens, Ga., has produced since its influential 1983 full-length debut, Murmur. It's a heartening turn for a band that had to reinvent its creative dynamic following the 1997 departure of drummer Bill Berry, and has seen sales in the United States of its three post-Berry CDs Up (1998), Reveal (2001) and Around the Sun dip along the way.
Mills says Around the Sun was hurt when the group had to abandon the album midway through the recording process in order to head out on tour to promote 2003's greatest hits CD, In Time: The Best of R.E.M.
"By the time we came back to finish that record," he explains, "we'd lost our focus and weren't really sure, exactly, where we were trying to take the record."
It was during their 2005 tour that the group started working on songs for Accelerate.
"We were playing them in sound check," says Mills, "so we got nice and tight on those songs."
The idea was to reduce the time needed to record Accelerate, Mills says. The sessions for Around the Sun had ended up totaling some eight months, and the band didn't want to repeat that process.
To further test the material, the group (with its touring cohorts, drummer Bill Rieflin and guitarist/keyboardist Scott McCaughey, in tow) played a special rehearsal concert shortly before the recording sessions.
"The working rehearsal in Dublin was another trick we used, playing the new stuff, a great deal of which was not finished," says Mills. "But if you play it in front of people, it focuses you and you realize what parts you really like and what parts you really don't. And that really helps you tighten things up again."
The extended period of writing and rehearsing that preceded the recording of Accelerate, coupled with playing live in the studio, paid major dividends on the CD, which was recorded in nine weeks.
Mills expects the rocking feel of the Accelerate songs to set the tone for the band's shows as it tours to support the album.
"I suppose a lot of the show will be more ramped up simply because of the nature of the new record," Mills says. "But I thought the '05 tour, when we played a lot of from Around the Sun and Reveal, rocked pretty hard, considering the songs are not necessarily that fast. So whatever songs we play on this next tour, I think it's going to rock pretty hard."