Wednesday, March 09, 2011

R.E.M.'s Collapse into Now: The Rock Turtleneck Career-Making Review

R.E.M. records tend to alternate between sustained mood pieces (the Southern goth of Fables of the Reconstruction, the heavy meditation Automatic for the People) and stylistic grab bags (Green, New Adventures in Hi-Fi). Collapse Into Now, their 15th studio album (16th if you count the great EP Chronic Town), falls squarely into the latter category. And it's certainly their best record since the sad departure of their drummer Bill Berry in 1997.

After making two of the limpest albums of the 21st century (Reveal and Around the Sun), R.E.M. took stock of themselves and decided ‘twas time to rock again. 2008’s Accelerate did rock indeed, but sometimes it felt like they were over-rocking. By going from one extreme to another, it was sort of like someone who gave up sweets for Lent diving into a vat of hot fudge Easter morning.

With Collapse Into Now, the band resettles in the zone where they do their best work - a land populated with acoustic stringed instruments, soaring melodies, aching harmonies and fun rockers.

I have only listened to Collapse Into Now a few times, as it just came out yesterday. But several songs already stand out. First is “It Happened Today” a mid-tempo insta-classic in the vein of “Man on the Moon” featuring backup howls from Eddie Vedder in the “Hey Jude”-like extended coda:

“It Happened Today” would have made a great closer for Collapse Into Now; instead we get what is possibly the worst thing I’ve ever heard R.E.M. do: “Blue” featuring and certainly influenced by Michael's dear friend Patti Smith, who brings out Stipe's most pretentious, least enjoyable musical instincts.

“Blue” ends with a reprise of Collapse Into Now’s opening track “Discoverer,” an upbeat number that recalls “Finest Worksong” from 1987’s magnificent Document. I get the feeling that Mike Mills and Peter Buck said something like, "OK, Michael you can put this piece of stream-of-consciousness BS on the album — but there’s no way it’s going to be the last thing people hear."

To wit:

"Blue" aside, Collapse Into Now is a fine record and the closest thing one can expect to a return to form from artists who have been doing their thing for 30 years.

Buy on iTunes: Collapse Into Now

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