Ring the Alarm: An Interview With REM’s Michael Stipe

“I’m overwhelmed/I’m on repeat,” Michael Stipe sings on “Hollow Man,” probably the quietest song on R.E.M.’s incredible, jagged release Accelerate , due out March 31 to the rest of the world and America on April Fool’s Day.

It’s a potent dose of post-millennial anger that has been a long time coming. Since losing original drummer Bill Berry before the turn of the century, the legendary rock outfit has delivered a hushed stream of cerebral confessionals. But their efforts were too quiet for a world exploding into hyperreality around them: From rampant militarism and consumption to a narcotized pop culture hell-bent on bling and little else, the world needed a wake-up call, not more exquisite lullabyes. After all, Earth is not what it was when they emerged from Athens in the early ’80s with hypnotic arpeggios, cryptic lyrics and nothing but momentum. It isn’t even close.

But the times they are a-changing — again. From the surprising rise of Barack Obama to the hopeful demise of George Bush, the dual energies of change and convention are supercharging the culture, and their battle is fierce. The global village, to say nothing of America, is at a crossroads unlike few others in its history, and one last fuckup could push us all past the tipping point. And judging by the sheer volume and urgency of Accelerate, R.E.M. seems determined to not let that happen on its watch. To mangle The Doors, they want another world and they want it now.

“Where’s my jetpack?” Stipe laughs by phone, quoting artist Ryan McGuinness. “It’s 2008, and the best we can do is the odd policeman on a Segway? We’ve had administration after administration pulling us back to the 1950s. I want progress, and I want progressive agendas. I fully expected that when I was 13 and taking an environmental science class that we’d have alternative energy by now. If you would have told me in 1973 that in 2008 a black man and a woman running for president would still be a big deal, I would have laughed at you.”

Yet here we are. And for Stipe’s tastes, at least, one of them has gone too negative to be considered a change agent.

“I’m for Barack Obama all the way. The Clinton campaign has took a desperate turn and has, I think, shown its true colors. How dare they use fear against Americans after these past seven years? I’m really tired of politicians telling me what to be afraid of. On the other hand, Obama is hopeful, grounded and clearly intelligent. He is, relatively, an outsider to the beholden D.C. club, and I think that is what America is calling out for; not a career politician but a true outsider candidate. He represents I think the true spirit of the beginning of the 21st century.”

“Looking back,” Stipe continues, “I feel like we’ve all had enough of the fear and the arrogance, and losing our place in the world. Our very big idea of a country and democracy has been brought to a near end by very small people.”

Stipe’s dissatisfaction is evident and visceral on the hard-charging Accelerate , especially on incendiary tracks like “Man-Sized Wreath” and “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” where Stipe’s sociopolitical agitation is matched in R.E.M.’s back catalogue only by the urgent missive “These Days” from their crunchy 1986 effort Life’s Rich Pageant . Of course, back then the world was in the ass-backwards thrall of not Bush but Reagan. But evidently the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or get worse.

“‘These Days’ was a clarion call for me, one of the only autobiographical songs I ever wrote,” Stipe adds. “Having said that, all of the new songs are fictional. ‘Mr. Richards’ could be about any member of the current administration. “Living Well is the Best Revenge” is about the 24-hour, personality-driven news media. ‘Until the Day is Done’ is about how the idea of America is so much greater than where this country has gone. But the title of the album is tied to my conception of the 21st century as it has unfolded. I just thought we would have solved these problems by now. So here we sit, even as people feel, as I do, that things are moving way too fast. We are out of control.”

Judging by the cultural chatter and voter turnout, bringing that post-millennial chaos under control is becoming more popular by the day. Accelerate will only help in that department: It is a galvanizing kick in the ass from a band whose cultural capital has only increased through time. And it’s much-needed: From global warming to peak oil and beyond into our fracturing global communities, we are hard-pressed for heroic narratives. We need all the alarm clocks we can get.

“I think we can turn this around,” Stipe confides, “but we can’t wait. We need the attention of everyone immediately.”

This cli-fi exploration originally appeared here on MORPHIZM and here on HUFFPO.