Longtime Athens, Ga., rockers R.E.M. continue their three-decade string of LP releases
R.E.M. has long been a band that critics and fans love to love, so it’s no surprise that their new release, Collapse Into Now (Warner Brothers), is being met with widespread hoopla. The problem is, multi-decade-old bands—especially those with such rich back catalogues—can never live up to the expectations of hindsight. But here, with album No. 15, R.E.M. gives it a worthy shot.
The title may hint at what the band was trying to accomplish. Fans will hear lots of little things borrowed from their past work en route to something new and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rockers “Discoverer” and “All the Best” hark back to the crunch of Document-era tunes like “Finest Worksong.” The tasty mandolin touches recall the folkpop successes of Out of Time and Automatic for the People. Bassist Mike Mills’ harmonies are (wisely) featured prominently.
Some of the nostalgia feels a bit self-conscious. “Oh My Heart” is an unnecessary continuation of “Houston” from Accelerate. “Walk it Back” has that overly earnest delivery that vocalist Michael Stipe can employ at will—just like on “Hollow Man” from Accelerate and much of 2004’s Around the Sun.
Producer Jackknife Lee brings sonic muscle and some surprising touches to these songs; fans of the bright sound R.E.M. employed on their signature work with Scott Litt will be disappointed. But Collapse Into Now brings more reward with repeated listening. The ode to middle-agedom, “Everyday is Yours to Win,” is as good as some of the band’s best work, although its roots can also be traced—“Find the River” meets “Electrolite”? The sing-along feel of “It Happened Today” is undeniably fun (even Eddie Vedder sounds like he’s having a howling good time). “Uberlin” is solid R.E.M. with a fresh twist, while rockers “Mine Smell Like Honey” and “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” will likely be strong additions to the band’s live set.
The album closer, “Blue,” initially feels like a mash up of “Drive,” “E-bow the Letter” and “Country Feedback,” and Patti Smith’s beautifully haunting vocals seem a bit too familiar. But the song also showcases some of Stipe’s most ambitious lyrics to date. Just when you think R.E.M. are copping a pretentious grab at artsy cred, there’s that familiar, compelling “something” that makes you pay closer attention.
At this point in their career, R.E.M. has little to prove, and Collapse Into Now is a worthy addition to their catalog. It doesn’t leave fans wondering what they will do next as much as it accentuates—and celebrates— how good they have always been. It’s R.E.M. coming full circle and embracing its legacy. In this age of gadget-driven music and single-song downloads, it’s reassuring to find that R.E.M. can still show “the kids” a thing or two about how to produce a quality long player.
R.E.M.: And the band plays on.