Album Review: REM “Collapse Into Now”
Review By: Eric Paulsen
R.E.M. is undisputedly the band that has carried the American rock banner victoriously through some important years, but has clearly spent more than a decade wandering the musical landscape for the things that will define them and their legacy. Their fifteenth studio album, Collapse Into Now, finds them peering into the valley that shows great promise, confident that they are seeing what is theirs.
The band could be roughly cataloged like prehistoric societies of the Mediterranean and Near East into a three-age system. The Stone Age could be those years where R.E.M. was mysterious and subtle, the kings of minor-chord folk-rock and sometimes referred to as the giants of college radio. The Bronze Age would be their final years with I.R.S. records and their first several years with Warner Bros. where they found themselves in the awkward position of being in the spotlight with radio hits, stadium tours and trend-setting music videos. The Iron Age is that time after their popularity waned, the drummer (Bill Berry) quit the band and R.E.M. seemed to be searching to rediscover themselves as a three-piece in an effort to grasp that elusive sound of promise.
The difficulty in judging any R.E.M. album at this point is that there are fans who are very loyal to what they consider to be R.E.M. Maybe it’s that band who dared to release a boldly submissive and quietly suggestive album such as Reckoning that was easily the counterweight to the fluorescent sounds of the 1980’s MTV video stars. Perhaps R.E.M. is the band who showed up fashionably-late to the party with all the best jokes and imported brew to get all of the attention in the early 1990s with an album like Green. R.E.M. could even be that band known for its searching and experimentation that led to fragile and beautiful moments in the 2000s with albums like Up. Finally, R.E.M. could be none of these bands to avid fans who love them for other albums and efforts that are noteworthy for their own reasons.
Collapse Into Now has been both hailed as a return to form and rebuked as nothing more than R.E.M. attempting to poorly repeat their earlier efforts. With so many significant albums behind them, the band will always be compared to previous efforts. There is no doubt that Collapse Into Now has a sister with the same face and who wears the identical shade of lipstick in Out of Time, an album that was filled with good humor and fun and found the band truly enjoying themselves and their work. There are a multitude of comparisons between the siblings with both Collapse Into Now and Out of Time featuring shared lyrical themes and melodies, collaboration with other well-known singers’ vocal talents, and a positive energy that makes the listener want to smile. It is certainly the first time in a long time the band seems comfortable in their own bedroom slippers, and their enthusiasm for the songs shines through with a confidence not seen in years.
Michael Stipe writes the lyrics on Collapse in Now that are more like the smears of both genius and after-thought that made him that reclusive genius of old who might have told you everything you never knew and nothing at all in one same breath. The melodies soar on this album and the collaborative vocal synthesis of Mike Mills on harmonies are reminiscent of earlier R.E.M. efforts. Mills is that under-appreciated multi-instrumentalist who could easily be the liver of the band, the organ that no one cares about until it doesn’t work properly. Peter Buck’s jangly Rickenbacker guitar is the stuff of magic and he plays with a revitalized passion that is present like a great uncle who survives a typically terminal disease and arrives at the family Thanksgiving feast with the most wonderful home-cooked pumpkin pie that he swears is his own recipe made from a vision he had during a dream.
There are borrowed moments on Collapse Into Now for certain as most artists will repeat their own work to a certain degree given time. There is the obvious comparison of “Oh My Heart” and “Houston” from Accelerate, even sharing similar lyrical content. “Blue” is the slightly less intelligent and not-as-beautiful half-sister to Out of Time’s “Country Feedback.” The song “Uberlin” might as well be an out-take from Reveal with its delightful melody. “Mine Smell Like Honey” seems to have been conceived in the same session and dipped in the same reckless abandon that produced “Me in Honey.” The fraternal twins “It Happened Today” and “Belong” from Out of Time are similar enough to be recognized as more than common siblings, but not quite identical.
R.E.M.’s latest album, Collapse Into Now, is a worthy and vibrant album that finds the band looking into that land that could be theirs if they are brave enough to claim it as their home. They are more alive and vulnerable than they have been in years and seem close to finding that which has always been present in the three current band members.