R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

“20th century, collapse into now,” Michael Stipe says in the final moments of R.E.M.’s latest album, Collapse Into Now. And it’s a fitting coda, as this album feels like a look back at all the things R.E.M. did so well in the 80s and 90s.

It’s been 13 years since drummer Bill Berry left the band, and Collapse Into Now is the closest they’ve come since to sounding like who they used to be. It doesn’t come close to the heights of their best work — how could it? — but it’s a rewarding listen that suggests 2008’s blistering Accelerate was indeed the wake-up call it sounded like.

Echoes of the band’s early work abound. The album kicks off with two rocking tracks reminiscent of the gut-punch openers of Lifes Rich Pageant. And while ‘Discoverer’ and ‘All the Best’ are no ‘Begin the Begin’ and ‘These Days,’ they’re fast and fun and they sound like R.E.M., dammit.

‘All the Best’ finds Stipe embracing his role as elder statesman. “I’ll show the kids how to do it fine, fine, fine”,” he sings, and it’s hard not to think back on him feeling fine when the world as he knew it ended.

‘UBerlin’ and ‘Oh My Heart’ sound like outtakes from Automatic For the People, rich and dark, bathed in strings and driving acoustic guitars. ‘It Happened Today,’ with its mandolin and snappy percussion, would have fit nicely on Out of Time.

‘That Someone Is You’ is a minute and 45 seconds of sweetly melodic thrash that could serve as a companion piece to Monster‘s ‘Star 69.’ ‘Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I’ hearkens back to Lifes Rich Pageant‘s ‘Swan Swan H.’

You get the picture. Collapse Into Now is a kind of greatest hits of R.E.M. styles. That’s true even in its weakest moments, such as the spoken-word closing track ‘Blue,’ the chorus of which is sung by Patti Smith. Its hard not to compare it to ‘E-Bow The Letter’ from New Adventures in Hi-Fi, another spoken-word track with a Patti Smith chorus. But ‘E-Bow The Letter’ is a passionate highlight of R.E.M.’s 90s catalog, while ‘Blue’ is a disappointing slog.

At its best, though, Collapse Into Now is a heartening reminder of R.E.M.’s greatness. It’s like watching Dan Marino in his waning days as a Miami Dolphin, far from his record-setting 1984 form, thread a game-winning touchdown pass between three defenders. And Marino in his twilight is ten times better than Chad Henne in his prime, so show some respect!

R.E.M. probably doesn’t have another Fables of the Reconstruction or Automatic For the People in them. But they’re still in the game. And when Mike Mills lends his backing vocals to ‘Mine Smell Like Honey,’ for a few seconds all is right in the world. That’s the sound of so many great high school and college memories still alive and well today.

7 thoughts on “R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

  1. Amy says:

    Great review. It makes me want to run out to buy the album right now. I will definitely pick it up this weekend. I’m so pleased that you like it.

    Meanwhile, reflecting on your Marino analogy, and your suggestion that this album is a sort of greatest hits of the group’s musical styles, I can’t help but also think about the new Paul Simon album I’ve been listening to over the past week or so.

    What I’ve heard is good, don’t get me wrong, but I’m a bit amazed by what universal and high praise the album is receiving. It makes me wonder at what point the fans and sportscasters stop loving the quarterback for everything he was and start demanding that he hang up his uniform. Clearly Marino had a few great albums left in him!

  2. Clay says:

    I’m not sure I get the analogy, but then I’m one of the people giving the Simon album high praise (review to come).

  3. Amy says:

    It was your analogy!

  4. Clay says:

    So you’re saying that the Paul Simon CD should be getting the sort of reviews I just wrote for R.E.M. (in the latter-day Marino sense), but you don’t understand why it’s getting more lavish ones?

  5. Amy says:

    Yes. Not that it should, necessarily. Just wondering what makes the difference between an artist – or, to use your analogy – a sport’s legend, getting the lavish praise as opposed to the exit door (or the Lifetime Achievement Award, and not so subtle thank you very much for playing farewell that it implies)

  6. Clay says:

    I think it’s as simple as performance, especially in the sports example. If you’re still putting up numbers and winning games, you’re a hero. If you’re more of a liability (like Brett Favre in his final year), people would rather show you the door.

    I didn’t read much lavish praise of Songs from The Capeman, though Paul Simon had certainly earned his legendary status by then.

  7. Dana says:

    I’m not sure what was going on with me eleven years ago, but, somehow, I not only missed this post and failed to comment, but missed listening to the album despite your positive review. Well, the comment has been remedied, maybe the album listen will be also.

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