R.E.M.: “Collapse Into Now”
There’s a common dig against recent R.E.M. recordings (and by recent I really mean Life’s Rich Pageant onward), and against Michael Stipe’s lyrics in particular– namely, that the band was a lot better before you could understand what the hell he was saying, meaning, of course, that his mumbling mystique carried an appeal that outweighs whatever poetic gifts his clearer enunciation has uncovered. Regardless of whether or not you buy into this particular argument– and for the record, I don’t; anyone who has heard Reveal knows that the man can write some stirringly beautiful words– I think it’s pretty clear that Stipe himself is perfectly pleased with his skills as a lyricist, and that for two albums in a row now, he and his band have positively reveled in clear intentions, both as far as the lyrics go and in terms of the music itself.
And who can blame them? I don’t know that I’ve heard many albums as lacking in clear intentions or motivations as the lazy and lifeless Around the Sun, truly just a horrible record on every level and the sound of a band totally bereft of direction. They followed it, of course, with Accelerate, an appreciably lean and economic rock record that reconnected with a classic R.E.M. sound on a level that was successful, if not a full-blown comeback. And now comes Collapse Into Now, an album that, despite its rather horrendous title, taps into the R.E.M. magic in an even bigger way– or at least, a more expansive one.
The rock and roll itch of the last album returns here and there; songs like “All the Best” and “Mine Smell Like Honey” filter the songcraft of New Adventures in Hi-Fi through the sound of Accelerate, the latter influence stemming largely from their rather inexplicable fondness for producer Jacknife Lee, returning here with a sound that’s even further compressed than that of Accelerate, meaning that these songs generally don’t pack quite the same punch as some of the last album’s standouts, though I do love Mike Mills’ soaring harmonies on “Mine Smell Like Honey.” But things are better elsewhere; there is more mandolin here than on Green and Out of Time combined, I think, and a lot of the folksier stuff is really lovely, particularly Peter Buck’s intricate playing on “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I.” A couple of songs strive for “Everybody Hurts” levels of empathetic grandeur, and at least one of them bests that overplayed oldie. Opener “Discoverer” is like a Reveal-styled rocker, and closer “Blue” is their most experimental track in ages, even if it is basically a merger of “Country Feedback” and “E-Bow the Letter”– right down to a Patti Smith vocal!
But going back to the idea of the band’s intentions with this one, as best I can tell: Collapse Into Now is very much its own thing, despite being assembled from previously-used parts, and if Accelerate seemed hellbent on proving that these guys could still function as a rock and roll band, this one seems intent simply on being an enthralling R.E.M. album, one that doesn’t have anything to prove beyond the fact that this band can still engage listeners on a heart level; to that end, it’s a wonderfully warm affair, and if the band sounds like they’re trying, it’s not that they’re trying too hard– just that they are pouring themselves into it, striving to make a record that’s warm and inviting and puts forth an effort to entertain listeners even as it speaks to them on some level.
And to that end, the thing is basically styled as a sort of emotional journey. The opening songs balance triumph (“Discoverer”), cockiness (“All the Best”), and a kind of tentativeness, almost uncertainty (“Uberlin”), but the record’s clear centerpiece is “Oh My Heart,” a pretty and effectively heart-tugging ballad that surveys New Orleans’ post-Katrina wreckage– as well as the level of bravery needed to return there and face the ongoing clean-up. “It Happened Today” is an emotional turning point, climaxing in a rush of giddy, wordless catharsis. The rest of the album is a series of pep-talks and generally positive-thinking sentiments about the importance of optimism and the true roots of heroism; “Blue” actually closes the record with a brief reprise of “Discoverer,” making the full-circle intentions of the thing pretty obvious.
All of this affords Stipe the chance to play Motivational Speaker a bit more often than I’d like, but I’ll take the warmth and humanity of this R.E.M. over a self-serious one any day, and on that front Collapse is a record of surprising balance. It’s a bit heavier on ballads than I might like, but then, I’m not sure what I’d cut: “Walk it Back,” a song about regret and making amends, has a rough-draft quality that I find to be appealing (it was, indeed, recorded live on the first take), and the twinkling lullaby “Every Day is Yours to Win” doesn’t just cover some of the same emotional ground as “Everybody Hurts,” but actually bests that song by saying something of a little more substance. The pulse quickens toward the end of the album with a couple of goofy rock songs– the wordplay-heavy, Peaches-assisted riot “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” and the spiky, punkish “That Someone is You,” a leaner and more direct rock song than anything on Accelerate, even– that tap into a silly side this band hasn’t shown since before Bill Berry left (well, unless you count the mostly-awful “I’m Gonna DJ” from the last album); “Marlon Brando,” meanwhile, is almost closer to the myths and fables of the band’s early days than the more straightforwardly inspirational songs that make up this record’s middle section.
You can find quibbles here. You might say that “It Happened Today” is too vague, that it recalls some of the more experimental Out of Time cuts in a less-than-favorable way, and I’d agree, though I’m at least happy to hear that the spirit of experimentation hasn’t vanished; you might also say that “Blue” is too derivative of past songs like “E-Bow,” and I’d not agree, as any example of this band ratcheting up the pulse without resorting to balls-to-the-wall rock is welcome in my book, and besides, the primal howl of it is a wonderfully soulful exclamation point to what precedes. But the big picture is ultimately a very promising one, I think; this is a rich, varied, and substantive R.E.M. album that seems to have nothing to prove, yet still sounds like the work of a band that’s working hard to do something thoughtful and engaging– a most noble aspiration, I think. They have not outlived their relevance, and, if this album is any indication, they have not outgrown their capacity to surprise.