The story of R.E.M. has reached an impasse. Fifteen albums in, and nobody can agree on the worth and vitality of this band anymore. Everyone looks back fondly at “The I.R.S. Years” and the first half of the Warner Bros. years, where the band was prolific and innovative and equally young and vibrant. Yeah, they made mistakes too, particularly in the early 90s with a couple records known as “Out of Time” and “Monster”. One thing that most R.E.M. fans can agree with though is that 1996’s “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” was their last great record before entering into about a 10 year period you could call the dark ages. By that point, the band had been around for over 16 years and things were bound to give out sooner or later. It’s telling that they only released three albums of new material in the ’97-’07 period and most of the rest of that time was not spent on the road touring. The guys had clearly gotten bored with making music and spending time with one another, so they got involved in other projects for awhile and also ran into some health problems. Despite these setbacks, they never officially broke up, though Bill Berry did quit the band right at the start of that tumultuous period in 1997. Anyways, after the slow motion daydream that was 2004’s “Around the Sun”, R.E.M. came surging back in 2008 with the motivated and revitalized “Accelerate”. Plenty hailed it as the band’s first great record in over 10 years, with some even reaching as far back as ’92’s “Automatic for the People” as a reference point. But was it REALLY that good? Is it possible that at the first sign of a spark, people overreacted and thought they saw a wildfire instead? This is where the rift occurs – from those that truly believe R.E.M. has course corrected and returned to the path of righteousness and others that feel this 30+ year old band will never, ever come close to their peak form again. Though they’d never outright say it, listening to their new album “Collapse Into Now”, the unofficial statement from the band seems to be, “does it even matter”?
For those that thought “Accelerate” was a late-period fluke of energy from an otherwise lifeless corpse of a band, R.E.M. immediately slaps you in the face with the charging single “Discoverer” to start “Collapse Into Now”. Where Michael Stipe gets the nerve to think that shouting out the song’s title over and over again makes for a grand chorus is a little lost of me, but at the very least it’s easy to sing along to and remember. Peter Buck’s guitar work is delightful as well, and if you don’t over-analyze it the track turns out to be rather solid. “All the Best” appears to both directly and indirectly challenge critics that think the band has nothing left to offer. “It’s just like me to overstay my welcome,” Stipe sings just before launching into the chorus with a mission statement to “show the kids how to do it fine”. The man speaks the truth, for as these guys are slowly becoming the middle-aged godfathers of rock, they are proving they can still write a bunch of solid songs that are better than a lot of what’s out there today. Unlike the last record, “Collapse Into Now” is not packed to the brim with high energy rock tracks. The band takes more of a cue from their early 90s classic records by weaving in some more acoustic numbers and gentle touches of mandolins and other instruments they’ve briefly used before. “Uberlin” is a lovely acoustic cut with an “Automatic for the People” vibe shimmering off of it complete with those essential Mike Mills backing vocals. The mixture of horns, mandolin and accordion on “Oh My Heart” makes for one of the most beautiful R.E.M. songs in a long while, and Stipe’s pleading vocal is also one of his best. Similarly, the crunchy, muscular guitar work on “Mine Smell Like Honey” combined with the fun energy and catchy chorus make for an excellent single that may even best some of the great moments on “Accelerate”. For no apparent reason Peaches makes a guest appearance on “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter”, a bouncy and shredding track that bears a similar silliness to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” both in the lyrics and in the way Stipe sort of sing-speaks his vocals. It could get annoying if R.E.M. did songs like this on a regular basis, but since they don’t it’s a welcome bit on this record. The punk rock vibe of “That Someone Is You” holds a lot of weight for a late album cut, but it wouldn’t have to if the lyrics were better. The line, “pull me up and out of cartoon quicksand” isn’t terrible, but slapping together phrases like “And with the fury lock of Sharon Stone “Casino”/”Scarface” Al Pacino/’74 Torino/I need someone else to make the first move” makes little sense other than to try and pull off a clever rhyme.
What’s not clever is the seriously painful chorus of “It Happened Today”. A mid-tempo acoustic track with lovely flourishes of mandolin, there’s a lot to like about the song, but when Stipe dispassionately sings the lines “It happened today/Hooray, hooray/It happened/Hip, hip hooray” it rings about as untrue as “Shiny Happy People” did 20 years ago. Eddie Vedder also makes a guest appearance in the last half of the song, pushing some really gorgeous backing vocals and harmonies that virtually erase the bad taste the chorus leaves in your mouth. A similar thing takes place on “Every Day Is Yours to Win”, where the instrumental complete with twinkling xylophones and Mills harmonies are very nice but just about everything else isn’t. Sounding lovely can only sustain you for so long, and when there’s not a whole lot in the way of forward momentum or variation on your melody combined with lyrics that unlike the title are NOT winning, you’ve got problems. And if you want to talk about the worst offender and least essential track on the entire album, “Walk It Back” should very much be walked back to the shallow grave it rose from. It’s like the piano ballad slow version of “Discoverer”, where the chorus is yet again just the song title over and over again. The verses though are special themselves, with gloriously average phrases such as, “What would you have had me say/instead of what I said?” and “Where would I go, how could I follow that/except to do what I did”. The song is about regrets and wishing you could have avoided what turned out to be a bad situation, but clearly by allowing this song on the album the band did not take their own advice. The song that may get the most complaints from people, but perhaps also equal amounts of praise from others, is album closer “Blue”. Hazy and distorted electric guitar mixed with slow acoustic strumming forms the instrumental base for the track, but it’s more wallpaper for a Michael Stipe spoken word poetry reading with blushes of guest star Patti Smith’s singing. Yeah it’s weird and if you’re not in the mood it’ll gladly rub you the wrong way, but it’s also the only song on the record that takes any real chances. It very well could have found a home on “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” back in the day where it would have blended in nicely rather than stick out like a sore thumb here. The good news is that it is the last song on the album, so if you don’t want to listen to it ever again, just hit the stop button early.
The album’s title “Collapse Into Now” is part of that spoken word bit that Stipe does on “Blue”, but the phrase itself is a strong microcosm of what this record sounds like on the whole. Listening to “classic” R.E.M. from the 80s and early 90s, you understand how the band was one of the unofficial founders of the alternative rock genre. They helped to develop the sound that so many other bands still copy even today. With the healthy mixture of the harder rocking, faster songs and more subdued ballads, “Collapse Into Now” sounds like the band knows exactly what’s worked for them in the past and worked hard to try and recreate it. The thing about reviving your older material is that it continues to sound dated, even though you’ve made it in the present. Yeah, at any given moment on this new record you’ll think about how that one song feels like a “Life’s Rich Pageant” era song or another might very well have been on “Murmur” or even “Monster”. It’s nice to know that R.E.M. can still crank out songs like that, and good ones at that, but where’s the originality? Where’s the innovation? “Fables of the Reconstruction” was such a vital album in 1985 precisely because it was something different and exciting. “Collapse Into Now” pretty much only looks backwards, preying on your nostalgia for a band that recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Maybe that’s what brought them out of their downward spiral though – the relief of the pressure that exploring new sounds and territory brings with the thought that you really can go home again. R.E.M. no longer needs to be this vital, alternative rock-creating force, but instead just a band that likes making music together. If it’s enough for them, hopefully it can also be enough for us.