Simply put, R.E.M.’s fifteenth studio album is basically as good as you can expect from the band at this point. It’s not vintage R.E.M., but it is more inspired and natural feeling than the rest of their post Bill Berry material. On 2008′s Accelerate, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe took an appropriate step toward the past by treading into unfamiliar waters: It was their first collection without producer Pat McCarthy since 1998′s Up. For Collapse Into Now, they’ve returned to Accelerate (and U2) producer Jacknife Lee’s studio. The increased comfort level’s obvious: The album feels more vital than Accelerate, like going through the motions of recapturing the past three years ago allowed them to harness something stronger this time through.
As on Accelerate, most of these songs are brief, though here they manage to feel more expansive. (And not because of the Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, and Peaches guest spots…) If you’re an R.E.M. fan and payed even passing attention to the Collapse Into Now-related “leaks,” there aren’t too many surprises left. The important thing to know: The songs they decided to showoff before the album’s release are the collection’s strongest material: There’s the archetypal, ringing opener “Discoverer,” the vibrant, acoustic sing-a-long “It Happened Today” (featuring Vedder, Hidden Cameras’ Joel Gibb, and Stipe singing their hearts out), the gentle, echoing New Orleans ballad (and album standout) “Oh My Heart,” the sunny, cheeky rocker “Mine Smell Like Honey,” and the vintage mid-tempo, slightly melancholic rocker “Überlin.”
That leaves seven additional songs. The guitar-heavy “All The Best” uses the momentum of “Discoverer” to keep the rock thing going. Stipe’s get-this-off-my-chest lyrics feature Quasimoto, church bells, bleeding ears, blood cells, and a boast: “I’ll show the kids how to do it fine.” Musically, it builds over its three minutes, but never really explodes. It’s fine enough, but fairly generic. (That said, it is catchy and folks may appreciate how much you can understand the words he’s singing.) Generally, outside the previously mentioned rock songs you’ve already heard, R.E.M. have better luck on Collapse with the more quietly pensive moments like the gentle pick-me-up “Every Day Is Yours To Win” or the spare, early ’60s ballad-nodding “Walk It Back.”
It’s late in the record where things get stranger and, at times, duller. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” includes some fairly bad lyrics about not being a hater, etc., to go along with Lenny Kaye’s rocked-up bluesy guitars and Peaches’ misplaced, sometimes spoken (“I’m a walking science fiction”) and sometimes sung vocals. It’s followed by the brief, cute “That Someone Is You,” a rock ’n’ roll love song that finds someone pulling Stipe out of cartoon quicksand. Then we have the awkwardly titled, beautifully forgettable “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I.” Patti Smith adds her voice to the dark, atmospheric, Beatnik poetry-rambling, Walt Whitman-referencing pep-talk closer “Blue.” She sings “Cinderella boy, you’ve lost your shoe…” Stipe talks about having enough to drink for his own party (4AM, Halloween): “I don’t have much, but what I have is gold,” etc. It’s a nice experiment that adds an offbeat close and explains the title some: “This is my time and I am thrilled to be alive … 20th Century collapse into now.” The 5-minute, piano-lined track ends with a “Discoverer” reprise, turning the whole thing into a circle.
Across its 40 minutes Collapse is solid enough, but outside of “Discoverer” it’s lacking anthemic monster jams (e.g. Monster jams). It also features plenty of familiar riffs: “Happens Today” is reminiscent of “Finest Worksong,” “Mine Smell Like Honey” hints at “Near Wild heaven.” Which isn’t to say they’re repeating themselves. In fact, the repetitions are ultimately more satisfying than the stylized risks, because when not experimenting, they sound like R.E.M. This time out, mostly the good R.E.M.
Collapse Into Now is out 3/7 via Warner Bros. If you haven’t heard it yet, it’s currently streaming at NPR.