By Ben Neal:
R.E.M.’s latest album Collapse Into Now hit last week amid two months of buzz that it was the group’s strongest outing in more than a decade. This buzz was predictable as most rock bands that have been removed from their zeitgeist for a decade or more get “return to glory” buzz for their next album quite often, but this time the buzz was not wrong.
Let’s back up for a moment and clear some things up: R.E.M.’s recent work was still quite good. Even the much maligned Around the Sun perceptively captured the mood of 2004 America in songs like “Final Straw” and “Leaving New York.” Frankly a band at the point of their career that R.E.M. is at (well past their zeitgeist moment, but still an extremely popular live act) will always face criticism of repeating themselves; well as someone once said “every time I try something new, all they want is 1993.” Yes, many of the same songs had similar lyrical and harmonic themes, but freshness was still there (no one complained about Hitchcock repeating himself by continuing to make thrillers). One valid criticism, specifically, is that the band became a bit too monolithic and too Michael Stipe-driven, and well those critics will be elated to see the increased presence of Peter Buck on this album.
Collapse Into Now starts off with the rocking tune “Discoverer” that is a bit of an announcement (that’s not dissimilar to U2’s “Vertigo”) that the band is back with an upbeat rock tune, but with classic R.E.M. lyricism. Following up the debut track is a series of tracks that make up the strongest parts of the album, including “All the Best,” “Überlin,” and “It Happened Today.” Within these tracks one can see similiarities with other R.E.M. songs both thematically and musically, but they stay fresh and exciting. “All the Best” serves a great rocker and shows that Stipe and company are not afraid to face their career mortality or to be self aware with lines like “It’s just like me to overstay my welcome,” whereas “Überlin” takes a slightly more somber tone, but is classic R.E.M. (and feels reminiscent of their “Losing my Religion”) combining serious themes of loss and change, with surreal lyrics and great harmonies. With “Oh, My Heart” and the remorseful, yet beautiful “It Happened Today,” the band explores the heartache of a Katrina-type tragedy.
While not reaching the heights of the previous songs, later tracks in the album like “Mine Smell Like Honey” and “Me and Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” are excellent tracks and make the album a cohesive unit and runs the full gamut of the R.E.M. universe. Themes of loss, failure, and coming back rejuvenated from those failures are consistent and well-explored throughout the album: the band has never shied from being referential to its influences (often outside of the musical realm) or to itself, and has a healthy sense of humor and humility about their self, which serves them well.
Another healthy change is having an album that has consistent themes, but has musical variance; this is especially important since their last few releases have had an all or nothing approach with either all hard rocking tracks or melancholic tracks dominated by Stipe’s crooning voice. From the hard rocking sound of “Discoverer” or “All the Best” to the slow paced somber sounds of “Walk it Back,” Collapse Into Now provides everything an R.E.M. fan (or any music fan in general) can ask for. It may not be a great album, but it certainly reaches greatness at times and is a treat for the listener, and really at this point in their career, that is no small feat.
P.S. Fans of Patti Smith or Eddie Vedder should be sure to check out their “cameos” on the album.