R.E.M. is back from the dead. Or so says Time Magazine anyway. For the first time in years there is a positive buzz surrounding a new R.E.M. album (Accelerate, released today). Inherent in the buzz around the album is the admission, even on the part of the band itself, that the last several R.E.M. albums have been duds.
So is the band's revitalization real, or a bunch of hype? I'd like to believe it's real, much in the same way that I'd like to believe that--with proper diet and exercise--I'll one day be able to bench press twice my body weight again, just like when I was seventeen. I don't know how good Accelerate is, I haven't heard it yet. But I guarantee you it's better than the last three R.E.M. albums, if for no other reason than it clocks in at a succinct 35 minutes.
Late career artistic revitalization is not exactly unheard of--Bob Dylan and Neil Young released some great albums after long fallow periods. But Dylan and Young are solo artists, and R.E.M. is a band (or is supposed to be a band anyway). I think it's a taller order for a group of forty-something millionaires who live in castles in different cities to get together and make a great rock and roll album. A better point of comparison is probably The Rolling Stones. The Stones have cranked out some decent, workmanlike albums late in their career, but--face it--Bridges To Babylon isn't going to make it to anyone's desert island discs list, and I predict Accelerate won't either.
Don't get me wrong, Accelerate might turn out to be a very good album, but R.E.M. is never going to sound like the hungry, driven, life force they were in their early days. They're not going to bench press twice their body weight, if for no other reason than they're older and fatter than they used to be.
Anyway, on the occasion of R.E.M.'s purported rise from the grave, I wanted to give you a rarely heard peek back at those early days. These tracks come from a bootleg called, appropriately enough, So Much Younger Then. It's a group of very good quality live recordings from 1981 composed of covers and originals that never made it onto the group's proper albums. Listening to these tracks today I'm amazed at just how vital the band sounded way back then. The ingredients that made the group such a revelation when Murmur was released in 1983 were already in place here with an added dash of rock and roll excitement and youthful energy that the group has never recaptured.
Time will tell whether the narrative of R.E.M.'s phoenix-like rebirth is more hype than reality. But these tracks are a reminder that, whatever the band does going forward, they truly once were a great rock and roll band.