Any suggestions that R.E.M. had lost its rock ’n roll roots and its focus after 28 years as one of the music industry’s iconic bands have been laid to rest with the release of “Accelerate,” the group’s first studio album in four years.
It’s more than good, according to “Rolling Stone,” which called the release, “The best record R.E.M. has ever made.” And the crowd that turned out on Rockefeller Center Tuesday to hear Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills play a trio of songs seemed to agree, greeting the pioneers of alternative rock with enthusiastic cheers.
Stipe told TODAY’s Matt Lauer that the band was surprised at the rave reviews “Accelerate” has generated.
“We kind of knew from the first couple songs that we wrote that we were on to something, but to get this kind of enthusiastic reaction from the critics and the fans is really great,” he said.
It’s especially great after their last album, “Around the Sun,” failed to break the top 20 lists. Lauer asked what made the new album so good.
“The communication was really good between us to figure out what we wanted to do, what we wanted to accomplish — keep it short, accessible, sharp, kind of energetic,” said Buck.
The energy is apparent in the selections. After going 10 years without releasing a genuine rock single, R.E.M. came up with seven for their new album.
They also broke new ground by becoming the first major group to release a new album entirely online through the website ilike.com. They’ve also set up a website, supernaturalsuperserious.com, where fans can put together their own music videos using clips the band has provided.
“The technology’s out there and the best thing you can do is to break down the barrier between yourself and your fans,” said Mills in explaining why the band decided to take the album straight to the Internet. “It’s just a way to remove the middleman and connect directly with the people that like you.”
R.E.M. was born in 1980 in Athens, Ga., where Stipe met Buck, who was working in a record store. They were joined by Mills and Bill Berry, the band’s original drummer. Stipe picked the name R.E.M., a medical abbreviation for the rapid eye movement sleep phase, at random from a dictionary.
In their early years, the band members slept in their van, living on a $2 food stipend they allowed themselves.
The band broke into the mainstream in 1987 with the hit single “The One I Love” and the album “Document.”
They’ve sold more than 78 million albums worldwide during a 28-year run that shows no sign of slowing down. The band is taking its new music and old favorites on a worldwide tour beginning on April 23 in Vancouver.
It’s a different industry, with music sharing online continuing to cut into album sales, but Stipe said he doesn’t mind the new realities of the business.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing altogether,” he told Lauer. “The music is doing great right now. The industry is really suffering, but musicians continue to write really great songs.”
And their fans keep turning out to listen.