R.E.M. has released three studio albums so far in the twenty-first century. Collapse Into Now, out tomorrow, will be number four. Before we get to that, though, you should know that I’ve been a huge R.E.M. fan since I was about 18 years old. So when I tell you that their efforts since 2000 have been less than consistently satisfying, I hope you’ll understand what I mean. I mean that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, Collapse Into Now doesn’t have to do a whole lot to be R.E.M.’s best album of the last eleven years. It’s their fifteenth record; many of their peers when they started over thirty years ago haven’t made it this far and the ones that have are mostly making worse music (when was the last time you put on U2’s No Line On the Horizon? Be honest).
To some extent, I feel like the band cheated on 2008’s Accelerate, indulging in precious few of the textural quirks that make some of their earlier work so memorable (“Houston” and “Sing for the Submarine” notwithstanding). The album was full of straight-up rockers and it worked pretty well in my estimation. I think it was a sort of refocusing that R.E.M. desperately needed in order to shake off the malaise of Around the Sun.
But if I’m gonna imply that Accelerate was a sort of calisthenic warm-up, aren’t I suggesting that Collapse Into Now should somehow be bigger and better than its predecessor? That’s exactly what I’m suggesting and the album delivers. I said Collapse Into Now didn’t have to do much to be the best R.E.M. record since 2000; that it may well be the band’s first great album of the century is a welcome surprise. The sonic scope is considerably wider here than it was on Accelerate: there are more blips, bleeps, string arrangements, vocal effects, and, yeah, Peter Buck plays the fucking mandolin on a song or two (I read an advanced review of this album on Spin‘s website that belabored this point by titling their review “Finding Their Religion.” I can’t stand shit like that – Spin wants you to think the new R.E.M. album sounds like old R.E.M. radio hits, conveniently forgetting that Buck played the mandolin way before “Losing My Religion” [the song is not about religion either, goddammit]. He played it on the sublime “You Are the Everything” from Green). Mike Mills, the best background vocalist in rock, is all over Collapse Into Now and Michael Stipe finally bows to the inevitable and has Patti Smith make an appearance as well (the album’s title was apparently her idea) on a couple of tracks, including the indulgent (in a good way) album closer “Blue.”
Lyrically, Stipe isn’t afraid to mine R.E.M.’s past – “Oh My Heart”, in addition to having one of the most musically gorgeous refrains of any recent R.E.M. song, is a sequel to Accelerate‘s “Houston” (both songs deal with Hurricane Katrina). On “Houston”, “if the storm doesn’t kill me/ the government will” and on “Oh My Heart”, “the storm didn’t kill me/ and the government changed.” The aforementioned “Blue” stylistically reminds me of “E-Bow the Letter”, a song I enjoy more than probably most other R.E.M. fans and it ends with Stipe saying, “20th Century/ collapse into now”, a clear nod to New Adventures in Hi-Fi’s excellent closer “Electrolite.” This sort of self-reference is tough to pull off with panache, but it’s pretty well-executed on Collapse Into Now.
Stipe also seems preoccupied with age (his age specifically) on this album, but not – I’m happy to report – in a pathetic way. On “All the Best,” he’s ready to “show the kids how to do it” and “Every Day is Yours to Win”, trite title notwithstanding, is the sort of song I think Mark Everett has been trying to write for a while now. Rather than looking to the past and feeling like he’s said everything he’s got to say, it would appear that Mr. Stipe can reflect on his experience and look ahead with some hunger left to drive him. On the silly-but-catchy (I would argue that some of R.E.M’s finest songs, going all the way back to Chronic Town, are silly-but-catchy) “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter,” he admits, “I have got a lot/ a lot to learn” and he’s “thrilled to be alive” on “Blue.” So rather than the sourpuss seriousness of Around the Sun or the wicked-prankster antagonism of Accelerate, Collapse Into Now finds Stipe in a place of earned comfort and optimism.
Words like “fresh” and “rejuvenated” are bound to pop up in reviews of this album (they did for Accelerate too), and it’s not hard to see why. Collapse Into Now, in a lot of ways, sounds more spirited than anything the band’s done since the vastly underrated Monster (Monster, along with New Adventures in Hi-Fi, is unfairly maligned by the internet indie kids but it contains one of R.E.M.’s all-time most beautiful songs, “Strange Currencies”). The word I think I’ll use is “assured” – R.E.M., once again, at last, sounds like they’re confident in who they are and what they’re doing.
The one thing Collapse Into Now has in common with Around the Sun is that it’s positively stuffed with musical ideas. The difference between the two is that I think Around the Sun was stuffed because of a sort of lack of decision making where Collapse Into Now feels focused yet still loose. Michael Stipe has two underrated collaborators in Peter Buck and Mike Mills, both of whom know how to structure songs with a sense of economy (if you want to know how much you should admire Mike Mills, you should consider two things: first, as I’ve said, he’s a phenomenal backing vocalist. Second, he wrote the piano part for “Nightswimming”). While some of the advanced reviews I’ve read of Collapse Into Now come dangerously close to using the phrase “return to form” (Masslive.com calls it a “comeback” which is why I’m not linking to them. Color me surly if you want), I think that’s a lazy way to describe it. What’s been frustrating about other recent R.E.M. albums isn’t that they’ve forgotten how to make awesome music (“Leaving New York”, which opens Around the Sun and manages to be its best song, is a pretty classic R.E.M. ballad), it’s that they’ve been incredibly inconsistent in their execution. What Collapse Into Now really is then, is a reminder that at their best, R.E.M. is almost unrivaled as a pop/rock band.