Throughout their 28-year career, REM have always stood a little awkwardly among rock music's parade of gaudy gods and heroes. Watching the three of them stroll on to the Royal Albert Hall stage, you can see why.
For a start, they don't look like rock stars. The suited and booted Michael Stipe looks like John Malkovich's wide-eyed, wizened twin, the guitarist Peter Buck looks like a man who would be happier changing your car tyres, while the bassist Mike Mills has the air of a wispy-haired librarian. They may have played with gaudier suits and strange facepaint in the past, but generally rock's flashier accoutrements sit wrongly on these ordinary Joes.
The same is true of their music. In the past 15 years the band have erred on the side of thunderous noise, sound effects and experimental flourishes. Yet this approach has lacked the passion and stunning grasp of melody that characterised their early work (and produced their biggest-selling album, 1992's Automatic for the People). So it is to the pleasure of their fans and the critics that on the new album, Accelerate, the band returns to their roots.
You can feel REM's rekindled enthusiasm from the off at this relatively intimate gig, played before a crowd of excitable competition winners. Such an audience would normally explain why a 16-song set that includes nine new tracks is received with such fervour, but something else is in the air tonight. First, the band's new songs sound fresh, potent and fiery, full of memorable chord changes and catchy beats. Second, they are played with an urgency that you wouldn't expect from three men in their late forties. Third, and most importantly, they feel honest. As REM blast through Accelerate's title track, for instance, Buck's left leg swings with adorably infectious energy, Mills beams like a Cheshire cat, and Stipe's jerky stage moves are infused with a new-found joy.
This also gives brightness to their back catalogue. When they play "Drive", the beautiful but sombre single from Automatic for the People, they don't smother it with choppy guitars as they usually do live: instead, they let it breathe. It suggests they have learned at long last that their music always suffers when they privilege testosterone over tenderness.
This warmth also comes across when Michael Stipe speaks. Once famously shy, he's been a confident frontman for years, but tonight he is something else entirely: he's at ease. "Good evening, Wembley!" he hollers daftly. Then, like a contrary circus master, he asks for the house lights to be turned up so he can count the hands of people who've been to the Royal Albert Hall before. "Who's undecided?" he says, and then adds a political flourish with a smile: "As we call it in the United States."
REM have always aired their political opinions, vocally supporting Bill Clinton, Rock Against Bush and now Barack Obama. Fittingly, new songs such as "Man-Sized Wreath", "Until the Day Is Done" and "Houston" (about Barbara Bush's sour comments regarding Hurricane Katrina exiles) fizz with subtle power. And when the band play "Final Straw", originally released as the US went to war with Iraq in 2003, Stipe acknowledges Dick Cheney's reckless assessment of the 4,000 US casualties in Iraq so far. "Dick Cheney said: 'They volunteered,'" he notes, sharply. "Good one." The two words burn like venom on his tongue.
That fire is everywhere tonight. Such hits as "Electrolite", "Losing My Religion" and "The Great Beyond" crackle deliciously, but do not cast daunting shadows over the band's newer material. Even raucous songs like "I'm Gonna DJ", with its title that sounds like a dad trying to be cool at a party, make you want to get up and cheer.
But it's the performance of the band's most recent single, "Supernatural Superserious", that sums up exactly what REM have got right. The change in the group is there in the song's cartoonish title, Stipe's welcoming opening words ("Everybody here!") and his enjoyment of the chorus line ("It's alive, it's alive!"). For here is a band having unpretentious, honest fun again, and sharing in that joy with their audience at last.
Pick of the week
The Ipanemas and Zuco 103
17 April, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
Double bill from Brazil: 1950s bossa nova and cutting-edge electronica.
13 April, BIC, Bournemouth
This week is your last chance to catch the silky-voiced Swedish troubadour on his UK tour.
Heiner Goebbels: Stifter's Dinge
From 15 April, P3, London NW1
Eerie sound sculpture, commissioned by Artangel.