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Rock Criticism 101: If you can't say something nice...

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We reclined, the other day, accompanied by the new issue of Rolling Stone, a fresh bag of Fig Newtons, and a sense of breathless anticipation. Who would not be excited at the prospect of hearing this fabled magazine's thoughts on the quality of and accomplishments embodied within the new R.E.M. album, Accelerate?

Indeed, "accelerate" was a word we would have used to describe our pulse.

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We were pleased to see the reviewer was David Fricke, one of the publication's critical big guns. Nibbling thoughtfully on a Newton, we read:

Accelerate is [...] one of the best records R.E.M. have ever made...

... [Singer Michael] Stipe has not sounded this viscerally engaged in his singing and poetically lethal in his writing since the twilight of the Reagan administration...

...Ultimately, the best thing about Accelerate is that R.E.M. sound whole again.

As we mentally added those emphases, we pondered their meaning, and once we got it straight we liked what we were hearing. There had been a lull, Fricke was telling us. There were certainly some R.E.M. albums that weren't the band's best, obviously, but this wasn't one of them. Since the Reagan years--i.e., the late 1980s--he seemed to imply, Stipe's singing was sometimes not engaged and not lethal. But that, thankfully, had been rectified. The subtext of all three of these observations was plain: R.E.M. is getting better.

It was a relief. We even chuckled at the idea of the previous R.E.M. record, which must have not been up to the group's usual standards.

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So we went back to RS's review of that release, Around the Sun. We were a little confused, at first, because the reviewer, Barry Walters, hailed the thing as a "comeback"! He continued:

Unlike 1998's Up, on which the band crafted beautiful but belabored studio experimentation, and unlike 2001's Reveal, where they relaxed but didn't deliver many memorable melodies, R.E.M. here resemble their classic selves.

Hmm. It sure sounded like R.E.M. had been back in top rock 'n' roll form for that one too. But fortunately, Walters was pointing us to the real problem: It must have been Reveal!

We hate Reveal!

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Our fingers smudged and aching (metaphorically), we paged back to that review next. We couldn't wait. The executioner was Rob Sheffield:

The last we heard from R.E.M. was the 1998 transitional album Up, their first without [drummer Bill] Berry, a sour, parched affair that hasn't gained any luster with time.

But the past few years have been rough on R.E.M. and their fans, especially with the departure of drummer Bill Berry. So it's inspiring to hear Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills brighten up on Reveal, telling a few fables of their own reconstruction with an album of gorgeous, woozily sun-struck ballads. [...] It's a spiritual renewal rooted in a musical one.

We were chagrined at first. A renewal? Why, that's one step removed from a redux, and a kissing cousin to a comeback.

But then we realized. Reveal wasn't the problem. We love Reveal! It was a reconstruction-like renewal. And inspiring, too.

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle had clicked into place. It was unanimous. David Fricke, Barry Walters and Rob Sheffield: They were all telling us that the nadir of R.E.M.'s career was a snake-in-the-grass little CD called Up. That must have been the real culprit!

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We trembled with anticipation to read the spanking the magazine must have given that dog! Ann Powers had the assignment:

Like 1992's Automatic for the People, Up seeks a unified mood, but its scope is broader than that collection of elegies.

[...]

Radiohead's OK Computer [...] is the Pet Sounds to this Sgt. Pepper--the challenge that stimulates risk. Buck and Mills cultivate the same multitiered spaciousness that makes OK Computer so rich. Trading off instruments, denying the guitar its usual primacy without diminishing its impact, Buck and Mills have orchestrated their rock as never before.

So Up was better than Automatic for the People ... and worthy of comparison not just to OK Computer but Sgt. Pepper.

It sure didn't sound that bad.

At that point, we realized what the problem was. R.E.M. had set the bar for itself, and reviewers, impossibly high. On its eleventh studio album, Up, the group had come up with a Sgt. Pepper-like masterpiece.

Since then, critics have had to deal with something unexpected. R.E.M. have consistently topped that stirring work, each successive release being so good as to make clear the flaws of the one before it.

At this point, the implication is clear: As far as Rolling Stone is concerned, R.E.M.'s best work is ahead of it.