Album: Collapse into Now
In Brief: Easily their best in ten years. Revisiting and reimagining the past seems to have revitalized R.E.M.
This is my first time reviewing an R.E.M. album, even though I’ve been following the band on and off for close to a decade now. They’re one of those bands with so much history behind them, that it’s hard for me as a more recent fan to feel like I can talk about how good their current stuff is with any level of authority – or at least, not without digging into their past to better understand where they’ve been and what driving forces have motivated their various makeovers throughout the years. I’ve blundered into brand new records by other long-running bands, trying to sum up what I think of them and how a fellow curious new listener might react, but at times, I’ll hear their earlier records after that and realize that my initial judgment of their latest (whether positive or negative) may have been premature. It’s for this reason that I never got around to offering my thoughts on Reveal when I first checked it out in 2001 (and which is now my favorite R.E.M. record), Around the Sun in 2004 (which I agree with pretty much everyone – the band included – about it being their worst), or Accelerate in 2008 (which a good friend of mine who was an R.E.M. fan back in our college days described as “A pretty good EP”). All of these records were given better context – to the benefit of some and to the detriment of others – by exploring the back catalogue, which I’ve now been through as far back as Document. (Feel free to throw things at me if you’re one of those old-school R.E.M. fans who thought they started to suck as soon as their lyrics became intelligible. I’ll get all the way back to Murmur eventually, I promise.) I decided to make 2010 my year of R.E.M., slowly digesting each record as I went back in time. It’s spilled into 2011, obviously, but it’s been an enjoyable journey thus far, and one that turned the release of Collapse into Now from “something I’ll check out eventually” to “something I can’t wait to hear”.
If asked to describe this brand new album by one of the juggernauts of alternative rock, one of the first ideas that would come to my mind would probably be “R.E.M.’s greatest hits in a parallel universe, plus some special guests”. You know how when they released In Time: The Best of R.E.M. in 2003, there was a new song called “Bad Day” that felt an awful lot like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”? Yeah, a lot of this record is like that. And I don’t mean that in a negative way, as if to say they punted and copied themselves for 12 tracks straight. But it does feel like a bit of a trip through R.E.M.’s history, echoing earlier songs in a variety of ways while taking those familiar elements and twisting them in surprising ways. Anyone with slightly more than a cursory knowledge of this band’s more popular songs will probably be able to pick out one or two tracks here that resemble an old favorite, but that veers off unexpectedly from that template, or speeds it up to have more fun with it, or throws in an unexpected guest vocal, etc. (And yeah, there are more special guests on this album than I think R.E.M. has ever utilized.) The album will probably be best appreciated by those who loved the acoustic-leaning, early 90’s staple Automatic for the People, and also the “F-it-let’s-rock” attitude of Monster and Accelerate, but it’s also quite a diverse record that recalls the jangly alt-rock of their early days here and there, and even the dreaded experimental phase that took them from the late 90’s on up through Reveal – just less synthesized this time out. It’s a delicious smorgasbord, and while a few songs don’t seem to fully hit home, the band feels reinvigorated, taking a sort of victory lap to revisit all the things they enjoyed doing the most, and not just issuing an album that sounds nothing like its predecessor out of some sort of pressure to apologize to disgruntled fans.
Now, I’ve focused entirely on the music without even a mention of Collapse into Now‘s lyrics. It’s hard to make heads or tails of R.E.M.’s lyrics half the time, and for me that’s actually part of the appeal, but it can also make it difficult to say anything definitive about the quality of the songwriting. Lord only knows what’s going on in Michael Stipe‘s head half the time, but despite the wordplay, we can usually get the idea that he’s sullen over one thing, jubilant over the next, and positively livid about the third thing. Collapse into Now tips the scale in what feels like a more positive direction, brimming with sheer excitement on a few occasions, even if some of it might be as ironic or sarcastic as some of their classics that merely sounded happy on the surface. In general, it strikes me as more of a transparent record, almost as if it lifts the veil on some of the murkier moods of past albums, to let us see what they were really thinking all along. Those who pay close attention will probably find some nice Easter eggs, which I’ve noticed R.E.M. likes to slip into their songs from time to time, as callbacks for the smart kids in the front of the class. Whether it’s as reflective of the voice of a generation, or politically charged, or capital-I “Important” as past records is probably a question best left to people who actually analyze pop culture for a living. What I can say for sure is that it’s intriguing stuff – frustratingly vague at times, maybe a bit repetitive here and there, but for the most part, this band doesn’t seem content to coast despite thirty years or so in the biz. Ultimately, that makes Collapse more than enjoyable enough to get its fair share of spins amidst the stack of new discs by up-and-coming indie acts vying for my attention. The only other “old guard” band still capable of doing that for me is U2, and I’d say R.E.M.’s outpacing them in the songwriting department these days. So please do check it out, even if you’re a lapsed fan who swore after a couple dud records that R.E.M.’s best days were firmly behind them.
I’m not surprised at this point to hear R.E.M. lead off with a confident rocker, though before Accelerate, it had been nearly a decade and a half since they opened an album in this fashion. What’s different between this and “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” (a song which I also love) is that here, R.E.M. feels more “stadium-sized” – Peter Buck is using a bit of guitar delay, Mike Mills‘s bass comes through with a clear melody line, and there’s an overall confident sheen that might seem a little overdone to fans who like the band a little less polished. For me, it’s perfect – the song rings out with the sheer joy of exploration, acknowledging the inherent drunken messiness and mishaps behind it, but declaring, “It was what it was, let’s all get on with it!” These could be fond memories of college parties (or recent dinner parties, for all I know), or the whole thing could be a metaphor for the band’s career and the criticisms lobbed at them over the years. Sure, it was a mess, but it was worth the failures and the bizarre side journeys to get to where they are today. I can’t help but smile when I hear this one. Sometimes my inner critic tells me that it’s a weak lyric – it certainly is disjointed in places as Stipe seems to interject playful taunts and excited grunts where words might go. But it’s memorable, and considering it’s usually my more literate side that R.E.M. appeals to rather than my primal side, I don’t mind a bit of balance.
2. All the Best
If you prefer the simpler, more straight-ahead rockers that don’t let up for anything, this might be more your cup of tea. It’d be right at home on Accelerate, perhaps to the point where it might get lost in the shuffle amidst similar songs. Here, it works quite well to keep the energy up, with Stipe turning out one of his patented rants, probably intended to write off critics who insist the group’s past their prime, and too old to maintain “relevance” any more, whatever that means. The lyrics are full of fun tongue-twisters like “I rang the church bell ’til my ears bled red blood cells”, and there’s another bold chorus which shouts from the rooftops “Let’s sing and rhyme! Let’s give it one more time! Let’s show the kids how to do it fine, fine, fine!” A simplistic statement, and perhaps more transparent than we’re used to from R.E.M., but still a lot of fun.
Take Automatic for the People‘s brooding opener, “Drive”. Speed it up a bit. Keep it acoustic, but perk up the melody a little. That’s basically this song, to the point where I’m tempted to cap off each line of each verse with “baby”, rather than keeping up with Stipe’s fast-paced lyrics. The song’s got a dreamy quality, with light percussion and an organ in the mix, and the blend of simplicity and intricacy is just well balanced enough to put this track in the running when I consider which one’s my favorite on the album. Stipe sings of a goal being chased, perhaps an efficient, utopian society. Dismantle the title “Überlin” and you get a portmenteau of “Berlin” and the prefix “Über-“, which is like the superlative version of something, the ultimate. It’s not so much a physical city, it seems, as a dream destination, a reason to keep going. “I am flying on a star into a meteor tonight… I will make it through the day, and then the day becomes the night. I will make it through the night.” Damn if I can remember the last three R.E.M. songs in a row that were this freaking encouraging.
4. Oh My Heart
A tinge of bittersweet sadness sets in with the horns that gracefully draw us into this sweeping, mandolin-driven ode to a city half-erased. We’ve gone from the ideal city to a less-than-ideal one, and it could just be my imagination, but this feels like a sequel to Accelerate‘s “Houston”, with the same basic 6/8 rhythm, but a much more compelling performance by all involved. “The storm didn’t kill me – the government changed”, Stipe muses, and in those lines he echoes the paranoia of “Houston” (“If the storm doesn’t kill me, the government will”), but now coming out on the other side of it. You can read a political statement into that, given that Collapse is their first album released during the Obama administration, but for the most part I just read it as an ode to those hurricane-ravaged placed on the Gulf Coast that have since began to undergo healing and reparation. This seems to restore a little of Stipe’s faith in the good of mankind. His heart goes out to these beautiful places.
5. It Happened Today
Another up-tempo song here, sort of a jangly arena rocker like “Discoverer”, but I’m pretty sure Stipe’s in sarcastic mode here, because I can’t imagine a sincere situation in which the words “Hip hip hooray” would ever emerge from his lips. (At least, I find it preferable to err on the side of safety and assume sarcasm; otherwise we’ve learned nothing from “Shiny Happy People”.) Whatever the “it” is that is so not a cause for genuine celebration, it’s hard to say, beyond Stipe’s hints that “This is not a parable/This is a terrible thing” and “We’ll leave the allegory to another Bible story”. There’s some business about earning his wings, earning his voice, so it makes me wonder if this isn’t a cynical dig at the self-righteous, who think they earn favor by cutting others down. As strong and effervescent as the melody is here, I have to dock some points for poorly-used stunt casting. I realize the band hasn’t advertised in big flashing neon lights that Eddie Vedder sings backup on this song or anything. But still, this is a collision of two of alternative rock’s elder statesmen, and you can’t think to use Eddie for more than mere harmony vocals? He’s got such a distinctive wail, and while I may not be the world’s most devoted Pearl Jam fan, it’s still something I’d easily recognize under normal circumstances. Here he’s buried so far back that Mike Mills’ voice is much more readily discernible. What was even the point of this? It’s a perfectly good song without a guest vocal, so if they were gonna pay Eddie to come in and help out with a track, couldn’t he have been given something a little meatier to sing?
6. Every Day Is Yours to Win
“Dreamy” might describe this one even better than it describes “Überlin” – it’s the album’s first breather, tempo-wise, propelled along gently by a simple, looping guitar melody that hits all the quarter notes. Light drums and bells are added just to give it that extra push across the threshold from wakefulness into lullabye-land, and while Stipe’s gravelly voice might not be the best suited for this kind of music, he sounds like he’s returned to a more genuine mood, his voice not dripping with any hint of irony as he basically urges the listener to acknowledge that life’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but despite that, dreams are achievable. It’s not all dreary rainclouds, either. (Stipe’s way of explaining this, though still simple, is more eloquent than how I’m summing it up – and consequently less cheesy: “With the wash and the wooze, and the subterfuge/Does it all look bitter and blue?/Well, I’m nothing but confused, with nothing left to lose/And if you buy that, I’ve got a bridge for you.” Mills’ backing vocals are prominent in the bridge section, and that’s where the song seems like it starts to inhabit a bigger, starrier space.
7. Mine Smell Like Honey
I really should like this song. It’s up-tempo, it’s happy-go-lucky, it’s one of those songs that urges you to go out and make a sticky mess and write your name in big, goofy letters on the world. Musically, it’s as free-spirited as some of R.E.M.’s classic jangle-pop stuff. But I find myself really turned off by the repetitive chorus – OK, actually it’s the pre-chorus, since there’s a perfectly good refrain right after it – where Stipe’s and Mills’s vocals trade off like ping-pong – “Mine smell like huh-(huh)-huh-(huh)-huh-(huh)-huh-(huh)-honey, yeah.” It’s not quite goofy enough to be endearing, awkward to sing along to, and I find myself asking time and time again, “Wait, your what smells like honey?” I may not be the world’s best lyric interpreter, but it doesn’t seem quite clear to me. Also, when the actual chorus arrives (“Dig a hole, dig it deeper…”) I keep finding myself singing the chorus of Green Day‘s “Letterbomb” instead, which I’d swear has almost the exact same melody. So this one just sort of weirds me out in general.
8. Walk It Back
While there might be a track or two on Collapse that doesn’t stand out to me as much, this is the only point where I get genuinely bored. (And since R.E.M. albums can be notoriously inconsistent, the existence of only one dull track makes pretty good odds.) It’s stuck somewhere in limbo between poignant ballad and easy-going mid-tempo, so the pace is a bit languid and the repetitive piano melody that drives it a bit unimaginative. Nothing stands out as I listen to the song – they stack up a few layers of sound, but there’s no instrumental part that really sticks out to me, and the lyrics, which seem to be pleading with someone for a chance to start over, are really just a bunch of clipped questions that don’t lead anywhere. What does “Walk it back” even mean? I don’t need to understand every word Stipe utters, but when you repeat the title of your song like thirty times, I figure the phrase is important to you, and if it doesn’t come across to me as having the same significance, then I’m sorry, but your song fails to do its job. Next!
Ah, now that feels good. If you’re gonna have a bunch of big, goofy fun, then this is the way to do it – just scribble down some alliterative nonsense and go nuts with it! The band launches into a four-on-the-floor rhythm that is honestly one of their most compelling since Bill Berry left, and Stipe rambles on about being an alligator climbing up an escalator, with a lot to learn. What makes the nonsense fun is that he sings it with gusto, with swagger, with little punctuated shouts at the end of each line. The presence of Peaches on backup vocals, unlike Eddie Vedder’s near-non-appearance earlier on, definitely helps the track achieve its maximum potential, spurring his shouts along and almost acting as the band’s cheerleader, with her own spoken word bit giving her a chance to ramble during the bridge. I can’t make heads or tails of it, nor can I figure out why every word in the title except for “Antimatter” gets a mention, nor can I even take a wild guess at the reason why the title has underscores instead of spaces (did they just want to mess up web designers who will list song titles in narrow table columns?) But who cares. It’s a total blast.
10. That Someone Is You
Now this one has just got to be a leftover from Accelerate. Fast, loud, fun, relenting, and short enough to leave absolutely no time for funny business (seriously, it’s only a minute and a half), this one flies by fast enough to be fun without quite registering as an interesting item to examine more deeply all by itself. It feels like a bridge between the similarly high-spirited song before it, and the more down-tempo final songs on the album. Not too much to analyze here, other than some interesting rhymes (“Sharon Stone Casino” rhymes with “Scarface Al Pacino” and “’74 Torino”), and a reference to “cartoon quicksand” that makes me think of the “cartoon escape hatch” in Accelerate‘s title track. OK, so Stipe likes things that cartoon characters can unwittingly fall into. Noted.
11. Me, Marlon Brandon, Marlon Brando, and I
Hey, we’ve just name-checked two actors famous for playing gangsters within the space of two songs! You’d expect some weirdness here, just from the title – why are there two Marlon Brandos, and if you really want to be overanalytical, two mes? Stipe provides no answer to what might be the wrong question to ask, but over a soft bed of acoustic guitar and mandolin, he invites us into the weird world of his dreams, singing of fallible superheroes and precious metals, and things that probably only make sense in his subconscious mind. On the one hand, it feels like the sort of dream pop excursion The Flaming Lips might have taken five or so years ago (“The Sound of Failure” comes to mind), but on the other hand, it’s a very earthy, grounded song that seeks to find acceptance with one’s own failings. I like the calming refrain of “Lay me down… help me off to sleep.” I hum it to myself during the occasional bout with insomnia.
Alright, so in our closing track we’ve got a slow dirge of distorted, hazy electric guitar, Stipe mumbling poetry that only loosely fits the song’s rhythm, and a prominent guest vocal by Patti Smith… does this remind you of anything? Why, it’s “E-Bow the Letter”, of course! Except… different. I may actually like this one better, because as memorable as “E-Bow” is for being inventive, I’ll take three repeating chords over two. Then again, this one doesn’t have a banjo. But Patti’s refrain feels a little more effective here, even though I don’t even want to begin to dissect “Cinderella boy, you lost your shoe.” So I’m not sure either one outdoes the other, or that this is intended to improve on “E-Bow”, but the callback is more than obvious. Stipe’s poetry is a list of wants and needs and confessions of various mistakes, sort of a statement of uniqueness and not caring what others think, and yet wanting those closest to him to accept and validate him. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the odd way that it rolls off the tongue, and the complete lack of inflection in his voice when he punctuates a few lines with a sardonic “ha ha”. This long, slow flight off into the blue-gray horizon would be a fitting end in and of itself, but the group chooses to take the bookend approach, bringing Peter Buck’s ringing guitar back in just as the last bit of buzz fades out, for one last excited reprise of “Discoverer! Discoverer! Discoverer! Discoverer!” It feels strange, like a hidden track that’s not at all a secret, but also important, like they’re giving away a major theme of the album for those who didn’t pick it up the first time around.
Indeed, exploration and discovery seem to be a major theme on Collapse into Now, given the heavy focus on dreams, ideals, one’s image of self, and valuable lessons learned from failure. It’s far from R.E.M.’s most experimental work, but in a way, it informs that work, as if to say “We hope you found it worth sticking with it through our most bizarre and contrary phase, and now that we’re back on more familiar ground, we don’t want to forget the new tricks we picked up. And if you don’t like it, well hey, we don’t really give a rip.” That’s R.E.M. these days, entering into their fourth decade as a band – confident without being overly cocky, understanding themselves a little better without having to apologize for the time it took to figure it all out. I like that sort of attitude in a band, so while others may write them off as has-beens, I still think they’ve got more intriguing journeys ahead of them.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
All the Best $1
Oh My Heart $1.50
It Happened Today $1
Every Day Is Yours to Win $1
Mine Smell Like Honey $.50
Walk It Back $0
That Someone Is You $.50
Me, Marlon Brandon, Marlon Brando, and I $1.50
Michael Stipe: Lead vocals, guitar, synthesizer
Peter Buck: Lead guitar, mandolin, keyboards, bass
Mike Mills: Bass, keyboards, piano, percussion, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: