Hey look – it’s the “back to basics” trope: “Everybody here / comes from somewhere / but they would just as soon forget / and disguise,” quips Michael Stipe over a narrow crunch of guitar, thus beginning R.E.M.’s noble-faced journey form-ward. The album is Accelerate and this, the curiously titled “Supernatural Superserious,” its rather supersocial lead single: All systems go, hook durably in hand, it’s R.E.M. at their least ironic, and certainly most modern rock. Part Interpol (a vocal comparison striking in more ways than one), part – one supposes – “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth”-era R.E.M. (from whence the bulk of its guitar-line came?), it’s a lean, legitimate, commercial single. Meant as a compliment.
Inevitably, “Supernatural” will be hailed as a “return to form.” Whether this label works or is true is anyone’s guess – though it’s hard not to wonder if we sometimes get a little outrun by our own narrative:[more:] Unlike, say, U2 – perhaps the last best example of a successfully executed canon revision – R.E.M. never has seemed all that embarrassed by their late-period nadir, nor compelled to amend it. Which isn’t to say they haven’t pandered (on the contrary: Around the Sun and Reveal, synthed-out in exhaustion both, go great lengths to give “trendy” a bad name), but simply that latter-day R.E.M. records felt like shifts in premise more than quality, and in their own strange way, had the sound of finished efforts.
The end result is an R.E.M. trajectory than has been a little more frustrating but a lot less obviously depressing. Bono – whose diagnosis of his career as some logical post-9/11 allegory tests the limits of one’s digestive tract with each passing release – yeah, now there’s a guy who has lost the plot. Stipe, on the other hand, has sounded like someone who hasn’t lost his plot so much as he has consciously altered it – down-scaled it for the time being. Likewise, “Supernatural Superserious” works because the band appears to have consciously altered it back: It is a precise rescaling that has little to do with bombast or will, and everything to do with craft: a simultaneously tight and jangly and monstrously catchy alternative single about, you know, teenagers and stuff. Not precise enough for you? You don’t know R.E.M.