“Living Well is the Best Revenge” from the album Accelerate
Audio File

“Houston” from the album Accelerate
Audio File

Older R.E.M. fans crack up when they hear newer R.E.M. fans say, “I go way back to their early stuff from Out of Time and Automatic for the People.” Early stuff? Come on.

Polished, radio-ready songs like “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts,” “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Crush with Eyeliner” barely resemble the cool mix of arpeggiated guitar, syncopated drum beats, rollicking bass lines, Stipean mumbles and yelps, and off-kilter rock vibes of such genuinely early-era gems as “Laughing” (from Murmur), “Pretty Persuasion” (from Reckoning), or “Life and How to Live It” (from Fables of the Reconstruction).

The newly-released (and well-compiled) DVD When the Light is Mine… The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 Video Collection, an overview of their video clips for I.R.S. Records, probably encouraged some veteran R.E.M.-sters to go on a Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe kick, spinning songs from Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, and other genuinely early-era albums. Hearing the classics likely verified the claim that R.E.M. was a uniquely lean, smart, Southern-tinged, power-pop/bohemian-rock machine, capable of writing and recording pure pop gold with weird twists.

When Warner Brothers signed the band and released Green in the fall of 1988, the band zoomed to international rock star status, paralleled only by U2. Thus began the second of three distinct “eras” of R.E.M. From 1988 to ’98 (Out of Time, Automatic, etc.), they could almost do no wrong. From 1998 to ’07, they couldn’t get much right.

After the unexpected but amicable departure of drummer Bill Berry in late 1997, R.E.M. stepped into their third era with the release of the drowsy 1998 album Up. On the lengthy collection, they challenged their fans with a dour new style that sounded pretty far away from their previous shiny-happy pop. Most of Up sounded like a band that just awoke from a long nap and documented the scattered remnants of a half-dozen crazy dreams. After Up‘s release, the band lumbered through an uncomfortable period of creative instability and inconsistency that continued through 2004’s Around the Sun.

Although there was a bit more bounce and major-key melody on 2001’s Reveal — with singles such as “Imitation of Life” and “All the Way to Reno” — things were hit-and-miss for R.E.M. Only recently did they start sounding less forced and more like a solid band again.

With the revved-up rock sounds on the newly-released Accelerate — their first studio album in four years — they’re back with a guitar-heavy sound and pop/rock style they know best. Buck, Mills, and Stipe haven’t come full-circle or rediscovered their “roots” as much as they’ve completed another step in their journey and naturally evolved into a new era. Obviously, everyone involved is working in concert on cool rock and pop ideas.

The contributions from two key collaborators — guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin — enhanced the creative mix. McCaughey, the former frontman of Seattle-based band The Young Fresh Fellows (and longtime collaborator with Buck in The Minus 5), surely added to the powerful guitar stylings of the album. McCaughey’s been on the R.E.M. sideman team since the mid-’90s, working on stage and in recording studios.

Rieflin (formerly of Ministry, the Revolting Cocks, Pigface, and others) signed on as hired-gun timekeeper in 2004 or so, but he sounds like a longtime colleague here. On stage, Rieflin’s terrific at emulating Berry’s style on early material, adding his own tasteful flourishes only occasionally. On Accelerate, he doesn’t hold back at all, delivering more than a few un-Berry-like snare rolls and tom-tom fills that work well within the songs. Rieflin is to R.E.M. what Zack Starkey is to The Who: a skilled musician with enough grace and power to step beyond simply filling in.

Co-produced by Garret “Jacknife” Lee (Green Day, U2, The Hives), Accelerate is much more raw, aggressive, and twisted than anything they’ve done since the span between Life’s Rich Pageant to Green. The two lead-off tracks, “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “Man-Sized Wreath,” pound hard with buzzsaw guitar work from Buck and McCaughey, and raspy, hollered singing from Stipe. “Supernatural Superserious,” the album’s first single, blends the jangly pop songcraft, vocal harmonies, and arrangements of their favorite early British Invasion bands with their more recent arena-sized full-band sound. Mysterious, waltz-time, acoustic guitar-based tunes “Houston” and “Until the Day Is Done” could have easily fit nicely on Fables.

A return to form? A departure from a mellow style to something heavy and hard? Old-school fans are quite glad to hear that it’s a bit of both.