As a teenager, I was totally bonkers about R.E.M. I adorned both bedroom and school locker with Michael Stipe's plaintive stare, and seeing them live for the first time — touring for Green — was a near-religious experience. Though my interest in the band cooled from rabid fervor to slow-burn love, I remained a fan in college, too — even through the growly weirdness of Monster and the sprawling, spooky New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
Then Bill Berry left the band, and I never really got over it. I gave the next four albums little more than fleeting listens (my loss, no doubt.) Sullenly, stubbornly, I listened to Murmur and Reckoning in the dark, pining for the days before Stipe's incomprehensible lyrics were printed on album sleeves (or searchable on the Internet.) And I prayed — not often, but periodically — that the band would come to its senses and make another Life's Rich Pageant. Naturally, when I heard rumors that R.E.M.'s fifteenth album was a "return to form," my interest was piqued. Had the saints of rock finally received this girl's secret prayer? Yes, and no. And yes. And partially.
Collapse Into Now got its title from Stipe's BFF Patti Smith, and it fits. For me, it conjures images of the band's thirty-year career careening into the present moment. And if the word "careening" also makes you think "car wreck," so be it. This album is a kind of car wreck, in ways both delightful and frustrating. Collapse Into Now launches with all the raucous bang a good album should. "Discoverer" swaggers into the room like a Monster out of the closet. The energetic "All the Best,' follows nicely. But by the third track, "Uberlin," and its echoes of Automatic for the People's "Drive," I start to wonder if Collapse Into Now is merely an album of really decent R.E.M. covers.
Bear with me through the lower points: "It Happened Today" could've never happened and I'd have been okay. It's a "why not?" kind of song with a "why?" kind of chorus, and a wholly unnecessary Eddie Vedder cameo that you don't even notice until the very end. (Did someone think, "Michael Stipe's vocals just aren't emotive enough... bring in the Vedder!") "Every Day is Yours to Win" is pleasant enough, as is the soft shuffle of "Walk it Back."
"Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter" is a lesser "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," again with a cameo (Peaches) that doesn't add much. The final track, "Blue," is one big befuddler, with Stipe reciting lyrics over Patti Smith's crooning like it's open mic night at the coffeehouse. What was maybe intended to be a sort of answer to New Adventures in Hi-Fi's dazzling "E-Bow the Letter" ends up feeling like a cheap imitation.
But now to the high points. "Mine Smell Like Honey" sounds like early R.E.M and Superchunk had a really attractive baby. "That Someone is You" also fulfills, coating the crunchiness of IRS-era R.E.M. in a harmonic veneer that recalls The New Pornographers. The Decemberists recently paid tribute to R.E.M. with their album The King is Dead, and R.E.M. repays the favor with what could have easily been a gratifying Decemberists song, "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I." The best moment, for me, is the fourth track, "Oh My Heart." Just as I was about to write off another latter-day R.E.M. album, this one got me in the gills. (Mandolin and accordion and Mike Mills' backing vocals like a shower of shiny silver coins? Damn you, R.E.M.)
Collapse Into Now isn't perfect, or groundbreaking, or even a complete return to form, but it proves that this band — in their thirty-first year — is still capable of making satisfying songs.