It's difficult to know whether to applaud Stipe, Buck and Mills for coming out with their most solid and succinct piece of work since Bill Berry's exit, or whether to frown at the extent to which they've been content to conform to most people's idea of what an REM album should be.
Yes, Accelerate is a return to form: strong, muscular, intense and powerful. It's also concise at 34 minutes and apparently took just nine days to record. Eschewing the experimentation of every album since Up, they've perhaps finally made the wilder follow-up to Automatic for the People that Monster so flagrantly failed to be.
Accelerate can be downright mouthy: Man-Sized Wreath violently rejects elder-statesman conceit and the post-punk sensibilities of Horse To Water seems to dare imitators and interpreters to match up. Musically, the sound of the band here reflects who they are in a live context: impassioned, intense, full of driving, droning guitars, the fires of the creative trio powerfully stoked by ex-Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin.
Lyrically, it's a dense and literary work, drawing on quotations from English metaphysical poet George Herbert's Jacula Pudentum in the opening track's title "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" and referencing American novelists Sinclair Lewis and William Burroughs as well as Victorian conjuror Harry Houdini on the lyrics sheet.
That's not to say it's in any way limp or over-intellectualised. Stipe certainly seems to be asking more questions of himself than ever: self-flagellating in Hollow Man, diving into dream imagery in Sing For The Submarine, begging for answers in Accelerate ("Where is the rip cord, the trap door, the key, where is the cartoon escape hatch for me?") He sounds permanently angry, alive, vividly in the moment, supported by some great backing vocals from Mike Mills.
Yes, this is a quintessential REM album, distilling most of the elements of what's made them one of the all-time great bands. If it turned out to be their last defiant rejection of age and decline, it would make a peerless exit. But somehow, I think there's more to come.