R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now (CD review)

R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now (Warner Brothers)

A note to all former R.E.M. fans: it’s time to come back; your used-to-be-favorite band has finally made another great record. 

It’s true, they’ve spent the last 15 years trying to find direction; releasing albums that were either too experimental (New Adventures in HiFi, Up!) or overwrought (Reveal, Around the Sun).  Things started to look up with 2008’s Accelerate, a return to rawer rock, where they actually sounded like a live band again.  Yet, that record was almost exclusively a rock album, with very little diversity.  Collapse Into Now alleviates this problem by reintroducing the wide palate of styles we’ve come to love from R.E.M.

Oh, there’s still plenty of rockin’ tunes – the leadoff track, “Discoverer,” sets the mood right away with shimmering guitars, followed by the straight-ahead rocker “All the Best” where Michael Stipe sings “I’ll show the kids how to do it fine.”  The fervor displayed here is reminiscent of the Green-era of the band.   That’s followed by the midtempo “UBerlin,” featuring signature guitar picking from Peter Buck and lyrics similar to “Drive” off of Automatic For the People.  “Oh My Heart” is a warm ode to the survivors of post-Katrina New Orleans, with horns and accordion over a ragged vocal.

Stipe can be accused of over-thinking his lyrics at times, but he’s taken a more laid-back approach to Collapse.  Most of the songs contain the word “I” in them and focus more on everyday relationships instead of on changing the world.  Several songs mention “kids,” and, “Every Day is Yours to Win,” with its lullaby melody, offers advice to a younger generation.  There’s also an abundance of one-line choruses and “yeah yeah yeahs.” In many of the songs, the lyrics seem secondary to the great melodies; in this way, the record could be compared to their early works like Murmur.  Nowhere is this more apparent, than on “It Happened Today,” which spends the last 2 minutes of the song in wordless singing, featuring great background vocals from Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.

Vedder isn’t the only guest on this album – R.E.M. brings back punk queen Patti Smith who lends her vocals to a couple of tracks, while her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye adds some distorted riffing to “Blue.”  Even stranger is the Canadian musician Peaches, who guests on “Alligator, Aviator, Autopilot, Antimatter.”  Another treat is the surprisingly simple “That Someone is You,” which churns along at a fast pace which harkens back to  their debut EP Chronic Town.

Even though there’s a nice mix of rockers and slow numbers, there’s still enough odd material to make things interesting. What the hell “Mine Smells Like Honey” is about is anyone’s guess, and the aforementioned “Blue,” which contains Stipe’s obscured spoken-word rant over Smith’s wailing and Kaye’s freaked-out guitar.  If this sounds like an album that’s all over the road — it is.  But, in a sense, R.E.M. has reached back and plucked many of the strengths of their previous albums to comprise a diverse and enjoyable new record.  –Tony Peters