It’s the worst. Being wrong gives me a sick feeling for days. Even worse than being wrong is admitting that I’m wrong. Yet I come before you today to do just that — to render my garments, and make my amends. Because I was wrong about R.E.M.’s new album, Collapse Into Now.
Back in September, when news first broke that this album was in the works, I pleaded with the band to not release it, to call it a day:
Peter, Mike, Michael…please don’t make this harder than it has to be. You’ve only had two truly horrid albums. It’s not too late. Please leave while there’s still some grace to be had in the departure. Leave before our memories grow tainted by the endless parade of lacking new material. Let us have our memories. It’s not too late.
…and I was fucking wrong.
Collapse Into Now is not a great R.E.M. record. It’s not among their ten best albums. But its existence doesn’t make me sad, and honestly, that’s something.
yeah, they’ll pass you by…
For the first time since Bill Berry left the band, R.E.M. doesn’t sound like they’re forcing something into the world, something that’s not meant to be. Up was an interesting album, clearly the work of a band taking unsure steps for the first time in years. Reveal and Around the Sun both felt like albums that were made because Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills didn’t know what else to do with their lives. And Accelerate was the comeback that wasn’t a comeback. Collapse Into Now? It’s just an R.E.M. album.
It’s the sound of a band relaxing and letting it be itself — and not in a forced, All That You Can’t Leave Behind kind of way. There’s no indication that the three principals had a back-room meeting and consciously decided to attempt a return to form. Admittedly, the songs on the new album sometimes hew too closely to their predecessors: “Blue” would be a retread of “E-Bow the Letter” even without Patti Smith’s involvement, and at least two songs have echoes of “Drive.”
But mostly, the album sounds like the weight of being “R.E.M” is gone — perhaps because so much of the audience the band was never really built for has abandoned them. And in that newfound freedom, Stipe, Buck and Mills figured out how to be themselves again.
From the opening guitar tones of “Discoverer,” which are reminiscent of “Feeling Gravitys Pull,” nothing on Collapse feels as forced as anything on Accelerate. Stipe’s vocals sound younger and refreshed, like he found a time machine to the Life’s Rich Pageant recording sessions. Peter Buck sounds fully invested for the first time since Monster, and resultingly, this album features the band’s best guitar work in more than 15 years. Even a generic rocker like “All the Best shimmies” and strides in ways that make you sit up and take notice after so many albums of retreats and disappointments.
The most crucial element of the return to sounding like R.E.M.? Mills’s backing vocals are present for the first time in ages. On recent albums, when backing vocals existed at all, they tended to be Stipe overdubs. The bassist’s voice is perfect for harmonies and it’s a weapon that’s been underutilized for far too long.
The real crime of so much of R.E.M.’s post-Berry output is that the band sounds boring. R.E.M. always had its flaws, its idiosyncrasies, but it was never, ever boring. The band and its music always felt personal and connected. Since 1995, they’ve been distant and generic.
Is there a song on here that make a 20-track best of R.E.M. mix? No, but that’s a tough and competitive field. And “Oh My Heart” might come close. It’s the best thing on here, a New Orleans hymn with strong echoes of Swan Swan H. The emotion doesn’t seem forced, unlike the similarly themed “Houston” from an album ago. “Mine Smell Like Honey” has a god’s-honest bridge. I had thought R.E.M. forgot how to incorporate those into songs. Of course, it also has the worst song title in the R.E.M. catalog (followed closely by this album’s “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” and “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” — if you’re going to break the four-word barrier in your song title, you better have a damn good reason.)
Listening to this album made me realize how badly I want to love another R.E.M album in my life — how badly I want to let this band into my soul again…It’s never going to happen, and this will probably be as close as I get. But at least this album was good enough to make me recognize that desire, to feel that yearning again.
So, in the end, is this album a comeback or a retreat? And does it matter? The world’s a better place when R.E.M. doesn’t suck — when they sound like they give a damn about the music they’re making, and not going through the motions to fill out a record deal.
And Collapse Into Now completes the band’s deal with Warner Brothers, so we really don’t know what comes next. This could be it, and if so, at least they’ve gone out on a relatively high (B+) note. And if not, maybe uncertainty and freedom will invigorate the band creatively, and they’ll come up with something legitimately new and original their next time out.