For the more troubled half of its existence, R.E.M.’s songs have displayed the band’s faith in the future, extolling the virtues of pushing forward without looking back. But the R.E.M.’s 15 effort, Collapse into Now, seems to make the most sense when looking in the rear view.
Collapse Into Now can be seen as a trilogy’s closing act. A dark, political (and widely misunderstood) pop album, 2004′s Around the Sun was quietly uneasy about a brewing shitstorm under Bush, while on Accelerate, a band fed up with flat-earth politicians and short-sighted critics alike took the gloves off with its loudest set in years. That line from “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” – “history will set me free” – was hard to read as anything but a statement of triumph from a band many thought was finished.
Though promoted as a record of nothing but bitter brevity and high volume, Accelerate was more diverse than the promotion machine claimed, and is the first album since 1996′s accidental masterpiece New Adventures in Hi-Fi to really try on different hats. With slow, mid-tempo and fast cuts bumping shoulders for equal time, Collapse into Now expands that approach with imperfect sprawl (Accelerate was too meticulous; R.E.M. is thankfully looser here).
Now that their Mr. Smith went to Washington and bumped out Mr. Richards, politics are on the backburner in favor of personal dialogues.
“Discoverer” lights a fire at the outset as the narrator works through a spat with a partner, fueled by vodka and espresso, only to “wake up dreaming saffron, turmeric and brass.” Meanwhile, “Überlin” downshifts with a celestial folk melody and passionate delivery from Michael Stipe about a traveler losing himself in the German city.
As much as possibility and optimism reign, there’s a sad side. The nocturnal melancholy of “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” takes a moment for heroes that withered rather than fell, and yesterday’s dreams that followed. “It Happened Today” is more vague, its unnamed epiphany dissolving halfway through for a wordless vocal jam with a faint Eddie Vedder.
Famous guests are mere bonuses.
After years of finding the right chemistry for post-Bill Berry R.E.M., this five-man lineup has locked in on an elusive homegrown magic. New Bill (Rieflin) in particular is a secret weapon on Collapse into Now, his grounded fury suitable for any weather R.E.M. can lay at our feet. Check his lightning-rod fills on the caustic kiss-off “All The Best,” where a defiant Stipe rails “I rang the church bells ’til my ears bled red blood cells.”
Speaking of paint-peelers, “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” is the life of the party. It ups the bozo giddiness of Accelerate‘s “I’m Gonna DJ” to maniacal levels, with Peaches of all people on crowd control (and sounding relatively reserved compared to her day job). “Hey, hey, alligator, you’ve got a lot to learn,” Stipe taunts, a warning to a new breed of fantastical pop stars who often bite off more than they can chew, but with a wink rather than a wag of the finger.
Along with “Alligator,” Collapse‘s quirky, peppy moments (“Mine Smell Like Honey,” the Al Pacino name-drop in “That Someone Is You”) nicely balance out the sobering tone set by “Walk It Back,” a minimal ballad featuring angelic backing vocals from Mike Mills and “Marlon Brando.”
For a band that continues to surprise, the most remarkable thing about the album is how well everything flows, from the stately New Orleans homecoming of “Oh My Heart” to the rumbling bravado in “Mine Smell Like Honey,” where each chorus sounds just a little different from the one before.
Stand and applaud producer Jacknife Lee for ensuring the occasional atmospheric wash enhances rather than drowns out the softer songs.
As classicist as Collapse into Now is, the best track is its sole arty indulgence. Rambling closer “Blue” does its own thing entirely, as wailing feedback signals the implosion and a verbose Stipe falls over himself, just as he did the last time Patti Smith showed up on record (for Hi-Fi‘s “E-Bow the Letter”). Though the chords are a little familiar, Stipe’s untethered telephone confessions, a robotic voice murmuring “blue”, and a surprise ending make for one of R.E.M’s most haunting songs.
In the band’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Stipe said his grandmother believed R.E.M. stood for “remember every moment.” There’s not a forgettable one here, whether you favor a Brando slow-burner or Pacino-esque intensity. But is it R.E.M.’s time to collapse? As they forgo tour plans and excuse themselves from the promo circuit, one can hope not. However, if it is, it’s a superb last stand to remind listeners why they stood with these discoverers in the first place – they gave listeners hope, too.
R.E.M. – Collapse into Now tracklist
- “All the Best”
- “Oh My Heart”
- “It Happened Today”
- “Every Day Is Yours to Win
- “Mine Smell Like Honey”
- “Walk It Back”
- “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter”
- “That Someone Is You”
- “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”