R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

Collapse Into Now (2011)

B

1. Discoverer 2. All The Best 3. Uberlin 4. Oh My Heart 5. It Happened Today 6. Every Day Is Yours To Win 7. Mine Smell Like Honey 8. Walk It Back 9. Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter 10. That Someone Is You 11. Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I 12. Blue

 

As you might imagine, I’m experiencing a bit of REM fatigue after spending the last couple of weeks reviewing their 30 years of output nonstop. But I give the band credit for trying their hardest not to repeat themselves too often, even when working well within a self-limiting formula for most of the 80’s. And even if that meant foisting a few turds upon the public over the years just so they wouldn’t sound the same as they did on the last album. Though, as songwriters, Buck, Mills (and Berry) haven’t produced a wildy varied output (whether that’s because they know their formula works or because they’re incapable of writing too far outside the REM paradigm hardly matters), each REM album has its own distinct personality. And to me, especially over a long career, that’s as good a mark as any of a great band. Even on the occasions when they reached back to the past for inspiration (Accelerate, “Strange Currencies,” “The Great Beyond,” etc.), they almost always stopped short of lazily repeating themselves.

Collapse Into Now marks the end of that creative arc and presents REM as finally becoming a greatest hits band. Does that mean this is their final stop (is that why Stipe is doing what appears to be a Nazi salute on the cover? Is that just the way he waves goodbye?)? Will they continue on and try to reinvent themselves again? I don’t know, but I do know that Michael Stipe is over 50 now, and most 50 year olds are all about “lazily repeating themselves.” And that’s nothing against you mid-lifers, because I bet by the time you get to be that old, the routine of waking up, going to work, coming home, eating dinner, drinking a beer, watching a baseball game, fucking your wife once a month, and going to bed seems like a pretty good deal. Especially when in 15 years, you’ll be destitute because the executives of the company you work for stole your retirement fund and Republicans will have eliminated social security by then. Gotta soak up the good times while they last, you know? But, 9 times out of 10, one thing 50 year olds do not do is muster up enough creative energy to make a great, creative rock record.

Fortunately, REM reached their quota of terrible music whilst in their 40’s, which means Collapse Into Now is a good record. Jacknife Lee, producer of Accelerate, returns and certainly gives Collapse a less one-noted feel than its predecessor; there are lots of different kinds of songs here, from loud, ringing rockers to gentle folk ballads. But I can pinpoint just about every song here as being blatantly evocative of a previous REM song or era. Which is actually OK with me, since many of these songs are more than worthy of being placed alongside their predecessors, just as you don’t mind standing next to your attractive and nice cousins or step-siblings (not the ugly and mean ones, though. Fuck them). Like “Discoverer,” which, with its droning guitars and shouty vocals, is way better of a rip off of “Finest Worksong” and/or “Time After Time” than “Turn You Inside-Out” ever was. It’s probably my favorite post-Berry REM song… well, tied with “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” anyway. Those two get my adrenaline going like few REM songs that came before. Following is breakneck rocker “All The Best,” which hits hard and sneering like a sped-up, cheese-devoid Monster tune. Good start.

After the first two songs, though there are a few more rockers (catchy power popper “Mine Smell Like Honey” may or may not be about the joys to be found in the stench of a good fart, and that is not a metaphor), the album takes a mellower route, with a concerted effort to stay more contemplative in tone and more acoustic-based in execution (Buck even breaks out the mandolin a bunch for the first time since Automatic For The People). The best result of this approach is the musical and lyrical sequal to Accelerate’s “Houston,” “Oh My Heart,” which boasts some gourgeous singing from Stipe on the chorus. That’s nice to hear, since he sounds a little worn out on some of the heavier tracks, and simply hasn’t come up with nearly as many engaging melodies as the last time around, relying on Mills’ still-stellar harmonies to do the riffs justice. I think at this point he’d rather just hang out in his Manhattan loft, make visual art pieces, drink martinis at high society events, and grow out his new bushy grey beard. More power to him, but if he’s thinking harder about what he’s going to wear tonight than his melodies, it doesn’t necessarily bode well for the future of REM.

Yeah, it’s true that I could go through this tracklist one by one and name specific past REM moments that each song reminds me of (“Uberlin”=more upbeat “Drive,” “It Happened Today”=Out Of Time-era strumalong with “Belong”-style wordless vocals. etc.), but I really don’t care too much because the songs are good and there are times when the self-ripoff factor is well-appreciated. For instance, I love “That Someone Is You,” a speedy sub-2-minute goof, precisely because it’s a bald-faced knockoff of the kind of song this band was tossing off in the early 80’s and it’s a total trip to hear them suddenly playing a new song in this style in 2011. Or the closer “Blue,” which shamelessly evokes the spoken word vocals/acoustic strumming/droning electric leads formula of both “Country Feedback” and “E-Bow The Letter” (they even got Patti Smith to sing on it again! Fuckers!), but I swear it gave me chills when I was listening to it today. Maybe because it’s chilly and raining and I have a cold, but still. When it unexpectedly kicks in to a reprise of “Discoverer,” it’s especially powerful… and feels very final. Collapse is in fact the final record of the $80 million 5-album megadeal they signed with Warner Bros. in ’97, and the first they’ve ever done in which it doesn’t feel as though they’re pushing forward into something new – even if that something new sucks. They could very well continue on (it’s now been 14 years since Bill left the band! That’s almost as long as he was in the band!), whether to make more records like this or to alter their approach yet again. But if this marks the end of REM, I’ll certainly take it.

Update 9/21/11: Turns out I was onto something. Exactly two weeks after I wrote this review, R.E.M. have officially called it quits. The lesson to be learned? I’m always right.



2 Comments

  1. Great information. Lucky me I reach on your site by accident, I bookmarked it.

  2. Justin wrote:

    This is a horrible record. HORRIBLE. Around the Sun is the worst, but this is nearly as awful. Credit to Around the Sun for an attempt at something new but this album shows just how old these guys have become cos they are re-writing songs they’ve already done on previous albums. They did them better the first time on top of that.

    You’ll find Country Feedback, E-Bow the Letter and Drive plus more on this record. No effing way this is B grade.