“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.