Features > Artist of the Month > June 2008
The Black Keys

 


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"Living Well Is The Best Revenge"

 
   Few albums have ever had a title as concisely fitting as Accelerate, the 14th set from R.E.M. But even before the group picked the name, even before they began recording, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills had a clear idea of what they wanted the collection to be:

TURBO-CHARGED    “Turbo-charged,” says Stipe. “That’s what I’ve been calling it. A turbo-charged R.E.M. record. We wanted to do something really fast and really immediate. The title was the last thing we decided. But even with that, each of us wanted there to be an immediacy and urgency about it.”

 And that there is. The 11 songs clock in at a total of 34 crisp minutes, each marked with a sense of electricity and edge, a sense that one of the era’s most beloved, esteemed, and creative acts is challenging itself to reach new heights. The album has a sense of raw purity that shoots right to the core of everything that the band, recent inductees into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, has built over the course of its 25-year plus career, from the first spitfire note of “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” to the soaring glory of the lead-off single “Supernatural Superserious,” to the final apocalyptic crunch of “I’m Gonna DJ.”

WRITING TO SAVE YOUR LIFE

   “We just wanted to reduce everything to its essence,” says bassist Mills. “We wrote shorter, faster songs, almost exclusively on electric guitars. We recorded it mostly live in the studio, using many of the earliest takes. We actually took out verses and choruses that weren’t absolutely necessary, trying to figure out what each song needed and get rid of everything else.” The immediacy also comes from a sharp-eyed sense of the world today. “There’s a lot of urgency, yes,” Buck says. “And I feel there’s some anger. Look at the world and you’ll see plenty of reasons to be angry.”

   But it’s a positive, forward-moving anger: “I want to end the first decade of the 21st century feeling really hopeful and excited and thrilled with human potential, our potential, all of us,” Stipe says. “So there it is.”

   In 1973, two years before he discovered punk rock and the DIY movement, a 13-year-old Michael Stipe imagined a 21st century that was a lot more progressive than "where we find ourselves now. “I took a year-long environmental science course, all about renewable energies and the possibilities that lay right ahead of us,” he says. “The civil rights movement had happened, the women's liberation and gay rights movements were in full swing. I had watched the moonwalk years earlier on television. We had every chance to bring about vast and progressive change in my lifetime and with my generation.”

   In writing the lyrics for Accelerate, Stipe found himself “squarely in the here and now; the last years of the first decade of the 21st century, and a wiser if somewhat disillusioned adult, looking at America and mankind at large as a cultural and political force." When he reflects back to 1973, Stipe feels cheated. Not that he hoped for personal jetpacks and trips to the moon, but he yearned for a sense of global community and progress that just hasn’t come to pass.

CHANNELING TECHNOLOGY

   I am obsessed with technology and get all of my news from the Internet,” Stipe says. “I wanted this album to acknowledge that and to have fun with it. I wanted to channel technology — ideas and dreams that form lyrics and songs — into its own appendage and art form. It’s the only part of my 21st century dream that kind of came true.”

   The obsession with technology manifests itself in every aspect of the new album, from the lyrics to the digital space the band has been created around the record. To them, the record does not end with the CD’s final notes. The listener’s experience of the music is continued into other forms of media through the Internet, making the mood and message of the album interactive, which you can’t get just listening to the disc. In the same manner, the band embraced music video as a cinematic medium instead of merely a promotional tool. Because for R.E.M., it’s better to be groundbreaking than reactionary. To do this, the band asked French filmmaker Vincent Moon to create experiences online, which mirrored the music.

   A website that counts down the time to the album’s release was launched on January 1st at www.ninetynights.com. Each day, a new high-resolution video snippet has been made available for download and editing in whichever way the user desire. Another site, www.supernaturalsuperserious.com, provides users a dozen video variations for the single, some with live audio and some with studio sound, that also are downloadable for editing and mixing, with results being posted at a designated YouTube channel, http://youtube.com/user/REMsuperserious.

JACKNIFE LEE AND “WHAT WE DO”

   Teaming for the first time with producer Jacknife Lee — at the recommendation from U2 guitarist the Edge — R.E.M. made the album in compact bursts of sessions in Vancouver, Dublin and, of course, Athens, GA, the band’s birthplace and HQ. The process was lean and focused, just Mills, Buck, and Stipe, with longtime recording and touring associates Scott McCaughey on guitars and drummer Bill Rieflin tracking live.

   Lee’s credits, which include Bloc Party, Snow Patrol, and Kasabian, in addition to U2, appealed to the band. “I looked at the work he had done and it felt like working with him would be both harmonious and challenging,” Stipe says. “I was given a list of albums he’d done and it just so happened I owned every one and thought they all sounded great,” Buck adds. “They all seemed to have something in common in that they sounded like performances – not a whole lot of sonic cathedral stuff going on, but an actual band performing.”

   Buck says the approach grew out of the great experience the band had on its 2005-2006 world tour, an energetic trek captured on the recent R.E.M. Live CD/DVD package. “Everyone seeing us was saying how great we sounded,” he says. “I kept saying, ‘This is what we do, let’s capture the strength of the live performance on the record.’”

LIVE REHEARSALS

   With that in mind, R.E.M. did something it had never done before: perform nearly all of the new songs before an audience at a “live rehearsal” at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, which also provided the launching point for the video and Internet ventures with Vincent Moon.

   “Of the songs we played in Dublin, nine made the record,” Buck says. “We could play them five days a week in a rehearsal room, but on stage you realize it should be faster, shorter, tighter. All the songs got road-tested, and that helped make the record feel like it was performed and not put together.”

   In many ways, Accelerate marks a break from R.E.M.’s recent albums, 1998’s Up, 2001’s Reveal, and 2004’s Around The Sun, all finely crafted works exploring the textures and possibilities of the recording studio. But ultimately, Accelerate ties together the band’s entire canon, from the initial blast of the 1981 single “Radio Free Europe” and on, simultaneously serving as a summary and a new start (“Sing For The Submarine” even references some earlier works). For Stipe, it’s all part of the vision for this album of turning old dreams into a new reality.

THE SONGS AND THEMES AND A NEW WORLD

   “For me, that’s what the entire album represents, beginning with the artwork and the title,” Stipe says. “’Sing Or The Submarine,’ which references past R.E.M. titles, songs that were written more from the landscape of my dream world than the real world, which, believe me, is a very different place.”

   The album’s launch point was the track “I’m Gonna DJ” which was originally written during sessions for Around The Sun, but didn’t fit that album’s atmospheric mood. However, it became both a band and fan favorite on subsequent tours. “It’s a good, chaotic song,” Buck says. “A lot of the record seems to be about living in this world. I guess every song on Earth is about that, but musically we wanted to capture that chaotic, energetic angry vibe about what our world is like.”

   Stipe says the lyrics were inspired by the 1999 riots surrounding the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle, with the titular DJ scratching his head over what it all meant. “It’s this guy’s feeling that ‘My God, this is the beginning of the end, or the end itself,’ and wondering what might happen beyond that moment, and the protests in the streets.”

   The opening track, “‘Living Well Is The Best Revenge,’ finds Stipe lyrics railing against the news media, its place in our lives, and “how they’ve utterly failed us,” the singer says. “Until the Day Is Done” takes on a different tone. “It’s one of my 6/4-time fake Irish things,” says Buck. “I’m not really Irish, but for some reason, 6/4 feels like folk music personified.” “It’s a great vocal,” Mills adds. “I really do love it. It adds a nice balance to the record.”

   Each song reveals its own barbed delights. “Mansized Wreath” is, “like anger delivered with a butter brush,” Mills says. “Supernatural Superserious,” as much as any track, is a classic R.E.M. combination of witty wordplay and sing-along appeal that Mills calls “R.E.M. 2008. It’s probably my favorite song on the album.” “Hollow Man,” though it took some time to come together, and was the last track completed, anchors the set’s core.

   “’Houston’ boils the national shock of the Hurricane Katrina disaster into a minute and a half of emotional poetry,” Buck says. “At one point, Michael said that he wanted every song to be a minute and a half long, so I wrote a few and ‘Houston’ is one. When we first played it on stage in Dublin, we hadn’t heard either the melody or lyrics because Michael had only sung along on headphones. But I trust Michael and it’s one of my favorites on the record.” Mills concurs: “It’s very powerful – sad, yet ultimately optimistic.”

   The title song, the simmering “Mr. Richards,” and the sly “Horse To Water” (“Great fun to sing and play,” declares Mills) complete a collection that never lets up. “The whole thing is 11 songs, 34 minutes, in and out,” Stipe says. “Art and pop culture and music are about right now. If we’ve done our job, that’s what this record is about — right now.”