That's the true genius of the band: Each album has a distinct personality, because they're so adroit at finding cohesion in disparate, unorthodox, and enigmatic elements. But if this one has an overarching theme, it revolves around keeping youthful idealism alive. On "Living Well's the Best Revenge," Peter Buck's molten riffs race by, jangling through hyperspace. Frontman Michael Stipe, his voice tinged with gravel and scorn, snarls such lines as "Don't turn your talking points on me/History will set me free/The future is ours." Instant classic "Hollow Man" begins with a somber solo piano and a vulnerable Stipe gruffly singing, "I've been lost inside my head/Echoes fall on me." But crashing guitars suddenly bulldoze the chorus and eventually emerge triumphant, mirroring the narrator's wild-eyed regret at his life and burning desire to transcend his status as a "hollow man." Even the hand-wringing protagonist of "Houston" is only stunned, not destroyed, by challenges to his faith after Hurricane Katrina.
Despite such weighty matters, what stands out most is that R.E.M. is having fun again. Recent albums were meticulous, mannered, and frequently moving (especially 1998's unheralded Up), but they often felt strained. Not surprisingly, Accelerate's weakest songs — the shiny-penny pop fluffball "Supernatural Superserious" and "Sing for the Submarine," a macabre waltz buoyed by floating anxiety — feel like a hangover from this era. The latter tune's winking nods to old song titles ("electron blue," "gravity's pull," "high-speed train") are painfully self-aware. It's a sharp contrast to the rest of Accelerate, on which R.E.M. stops over-thinking things — and starts roaring toward the future.