Album review: Collapse Into Now

If you know anything about me at all (or at least understand the name of this blog), you realize that R.E.M holds a special place in my psyche.  The ubiquitous “they” say that you always love some  form of the music that you love when you are 13-19, and for me R.E.M. was that band and more. A lot of younger friends have asked me what the lasting appeal of the band is (usually those who have the 90s as their primary musical frame of reference, when R.E.M. was one of the biggest bands in the world, but their creative output didn’t quite match the sustained run of greatness they had in the IRS years from 1982s Chronic Town EP through the release of Document in 1987). It’s a 5 album (and 1 EP) output that rivals almost any band over the last 30 years, and beyond.

Vinyl baby, spinning it old school

It’s hard to categorize though what made them so different and meaningful for those of us who weren’t stuck rotating Slippery When Wet, Appetite for Destruction, The Wall and Legend in a 4 album lather, rinse, scream “Wahooooo,” and repeat cycle every weekend. The sound was unique but built upon enough recognizable musical blocks that it was immediately familiar at the same time: Peter Buck’s ringing Byrds-ian jangle, Bill Berry’s loose, staccato, Stewart Copeland influenced beats, and Mike Mills walking bass lines and Beach Boys harmonies. That familiarity became something of the R.E.M. template, and though each album gradually added elements and expanded their reach (keyboards, the occasional banjo, mandolin, even horns – anybody remember the Memphis Horns version of Finest Worksong? Anybody? No? Fine, I’ll stop now), the familiar core of the band remained to anchor almost every tune.

Bill Berry’s departure in 1997 obviously changed that, and the band spent the better part of 3 albums learning to deal with his loss, with results that were sometimes brilliant (a good portion of Up), but just as often depressing (hello Around the Sun). 2008’s Accelerate was to me the sound of a band that had rediscovered some of its confidence, but while it has some of the best songs in the R.E.M catalog (Houston and Hollow Man come to mind), it sounds like a conscious reflection of their live show than a classic R.E.M. album. (I covered my personal R.E.M album rankings here if you are interested for some reason.)

That’s a really long winded and rambling way to get to Collapse Into Now, but I’m happy to report that the record is very good indeed, and for once truly lives up to some of the “return to form” hype that seemingly precedes any R.E.M release. Is this one of the great R.E.M releases ever, ready to take it’s place on amongst the R.E.M. Mount Rushmore of classics? No, but for the first time since personal favorite New Adventures in Hi Fi you can truly recognize the band that defined American alternative music for years.

Side A contains the more immediately accessible songs, and plays a bit like a checklist of references to earlier great R.E.M. albums: Discoverer (Document), All the Best and It Happened Today (New Adventures in Hi Fi), and Uberlin (Automatic for the People). Listening to the vinyl version after a week of online streaming and previews confirms one of my initial impressions, that Peter Buck sounds great on this record, and uncovered a hidden gem, Eddie Veder supplying the much missed Bill Berry-low end on the harmonies at that end It Happened Today. Rarely has anyone contributed more to a song with a simple “huuuuuuuhhhhhhhh.” This is as engaging a stretch of music as R.E.M. have made in a some time.

(Oops, hit publish instead of save as draft. Sorry, I’m a dumbass sometimes. Resume now.)

Side B kicks off with a song that would have fit in well on Accelerate, the rocking and catchy, though unfortunately titled, Mine Smell Like Honey (i’ll leave it to your imagination what that song is about). Musically it’s a great number that gets dragged down a bit by some fairly inane lyrics, which wasn’t a probably back in the day when Michael Stipe’s vocals were buried deep in the mix and his lyrics were mysterious pieces of word association poetry. The rest of the album meanders a bit to the conclusion, with the strongest songs Walk It Back, Me, Marlon Brandon, Marlon Brandon and I, and the closer Blue weighed down a bit by the goofy That Someone if You and Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter (featuring Peaches?!? on backing vocals – excuse me while I interrupt this post briefly.)

Dear R.E.M.:

Can we please remove the out of left field guest pop singer rapper song from the template? You’re 0-3 on that one. More Patti Smith, less Peaches.

Many thanks in advance,

JLo

Ok, thanks, had to get that off my chest. Bottom line is, this is a very good album from a band that is past the point in it’s career where you have a right to expect one. And it bodes very well and has me exciting to hear the next record if the trajectory continues like this. If Accelerate was the sound of a band regaining its confidence, Collapse into Now is a band comfortable with it’s legacy and sound, and willing to play to it’s strengths. Now if we can just find the band that could balance familiar sound while still expanding its frontiers on each record, then we’d really have the true “return to form” we always hear about. Regardless, Collapse Into Now more than holds its own for now.

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Posted on March 9, 2011, in Music and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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