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Collapse Into Now - Warner
FILTER Grade: 88%

By Nevin Martell on March 8, 2011



Once titans of college rock and then the champions of mainstream alternative, R.E.M. has been in a relative rut since the mid ’90s. For the past decade and a half, its records have simply become an excuse for the band to go out on another arena tour. There have been a handful of moments—“The Great Beyond” from the Man on the Moon soundtrack and the Automatic for the People-styled “Daysleeper” on 1998’s Up—but the output has mostly become simply inoffensive. You wouldn’t resent Starbucks if they played Reveal (or Around the Sun, Accelerate or Up for that matter), but you wouldn’t be motivated to buy a copy at the counter when you order a quadruple-shot, grande, non-fat latte with a dusting of cinnamon. It might inspire you to put Lifes Rich Pageant or Murmur on your iPod, but that’s about it.

When a band as undoubtedly talented as the Athens threesome are continues to put out such uninspired material, you have to wonder whether it has hit the stage where it’s willingly putting itself out to pasture so it can continue a career as a nostalgia-invoking heritage act that is just in it to cover the house payments on the Caribbean mansion. There is a place in this world for the “Bon Jovi of alt-rock” and R.E.M. could easily fill that void. Well, good news, kids. It’s time to praise the Lord and pass the pancakes, because R.E.M.’s fifteenth album, Collapse Into Now, finds them moving from being inoffensive to being on the offensive.

Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills open their comeback attack with “Discoverer,” a big, sleek rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on 1994’s Monster. Producer Jacknife Lee (U2, Snow Patrol) has helped the band keep stadium-sized spaces in mind without sacrificing its organic qualities. Stipe’s first words are, “Hey, baby/This is not a challenge/It just means that I love you as much as I always said I did.” Despite his protestations, it certainly sounds like a challenge (perhaps to all the people who doubted R.E.M. still had a fire raging in its belly).

“All the Best” is a crash-boom-pow of a song that seems wholly intent on kicking skeptics in the balls again. As Buck’s guitars charge into the fray, Stipe promises, “I’ll show the kids how to do it,” with a determination that has been missing from his delivery in recent years. Later in the song, he admits, “I just had to get that off my chest.” This kind of cathartic outcry is just what R.E.M. needs right now. It’s a brazen “fuck you” to the dying of the light and a middle finger to the golden years.

The next two tunes, “Uberlin” and “Oh My Heart,” would have fit comfortably on 1991’s Out of Time. The latter is especially notable since Stipe revealed that it is his ode to New Orleans. The song’s swelling chorus and shimmering mandolin lines fit the somber yet hopeful mood. Stipe is at his most straightforwardly autobiographical here: “I came home to a city half erased/I came home to face what we faced/This place needs me here to start/This place is the beat of my heart.” It serves as a touching reminder that when R.E.M. go for the emotional jugular (“Everybody Hurts,” “Country Feedback,” “You Are the Everything,” et cetera), they usually hit the vein.

There is a pair of notable guest singers on the album. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder lends his vocals to “It Happened Today,” which also could have been written for Out of Time (think “Near Wild Heaven” with the brakes on), and Patti Smith revisits her “E-Bow the Letter” purring on the album’s closer, “Blue.” Come to think of it, Stipe’s delivery on “Blue” is a bit like “Belong” on Out of Time. Well, if the band is going to rip itself off, at least they chose a good album to mine.

There are a few other notable moments here. “Every Day Is Yours to Win” is a dreamy meditation, while “Mine Smell Like Honey” and “That Someone Is You” have the joyous abandon of I.R.S.-era R.E.M. It isn’t a clean sweep, though. “Walk It Back” and the awkwardly titled “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” are both thudding, overwrought ballads of the worst kind. But that’s what that double arrow button on your iTunes player is for.

Despite some small stutter steps, Collapse Into Now is easily the best R.E.M. album since the trio lost its way. These songs are worthy of attention, praise and a place in your music library—and they definitely deserve better than a soundtrack to your morning latte.

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