Album: Collapse into Now
Released: March 7th, 2011
Highlights: Überlin, Oh My Heart, Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter, Blue
Through the first twenty-four years of their amazing run, R.E.M. built a career arch that nearly all bands could be envious of. For starters, they managed to ascend from underground heroes to mainstream darlings without pissing too many people off; in fact, even the idealistic Kurt Cobain would go on to describe the group as saints thanks to how they handled their migration to a major label. Secondly, during all those years, the boys from Athens amassed a large discography of thirteen records while not delivering a single dud. Sure, their albums were far from being unanimous: the band itself was, originally, not too thrilled by “Fables of the Reconstruction”; “Green” was perceived by some to be lackluster, especially compared to what had come before it; “Monster” certainly had its share of detractors; and the trio of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”, “Up”, and “Reveal” were punctually accused of being too long. Yet, the point was that an agreement in singling out a bad R.E.M. record could never be reached because none of their works stood out negatively.
Then, of course, 2004 came, “Around the Sun” hit store shelves, and humanity finally established a consensus in the debate of whether or not R.E.M. had ever stumbled: the answer was yes, and the evidence was a bland overproduced fifty-five-minute marathon where life and energy were sucked out of the compositions until they mostly became adult-oriented rock. The band felt the blow: guitarist Peter Buck bemoaned the fact they had overworked these songs in the studio and vowed the band would make up for their mistake by going back to their roots. And indeed they would try to do so four years later in “Accelerate”, which was such a massive course-correction that besides ranking, by far, as the band’s heaviest album, it would also be their shortest: clocking in at thirty-five minutes. Nevertheless, as good and fun as it is, “Accelerate” was not a bona fide reunion with the group’s history; it was something possibly more interesting: the breaking into new sonic ground. It would actually take another three years for R.E.M. to truly reconnect with their past, which is what happened in “Collapse into Now”.
There is a very good debate to be had about the value of a band making an album where they actively try to emulate their previous successes. For groups that have always moved forward, like R.E.M. themselves, there is the chance some will accuse them of artistic stagnation or lack of creativity; to those ears, another sonic leap like the one from “Accelerate” would have been more welcome. Contrarily, when one’s past is filled with engaging twists and turns as well as very successful releases, both from an artistic and commercial standpoint, there is certainly an appeal in driving back through previously traveled roads. To boot, in the particular case of “Collapse into Now”, R.E.M. had a very good thematic excuse to regress rather than progress: they were aware this was meant to be their last album; with Michael Stipe even going as far as saying, later, that he found it amusing how nobody seemed to notice he was waving goodbye on the record’s cover. Because of that status, “Collapse into Now” more than earns its right to sound like a victory lap through the past.
It has to be said that “Collapse into Now” frequently takes its underlining theme to such an extreme that parts of it come off as self-plagiarism. “Discoverer” has an anthemic arena-rock vibe seen in the loudest tracks of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”. “Oh My Heart” thematically and musically nods to the acoustic darkness of “Houston”, from “Accelerate”. “Every Day Is Yours to Win” imitates “Everybody Hurts” in its pep-talk nature and in its gently picked guitar. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” has the glam of “Monster”, even if the song does not carry the tremolo effects that dominated that album. “That Someone Is You” is a bouncy nearly jangling rocker that brings to mind the fastest tunes of the “Reckoning” era. “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” is a mandolin-led dirge that could have been in either “Out of Time” or “Automatic for the People”. And “Blue” drinks so heavily from the masterful “E-Bow the Letter” that, like that song, it features Patti Smith as a guest vocalist.
All in all, that is more than half of album’s twelve songs showcasing clear connections to previous records or tunes by the band, and some devoted fans are bound to be able to draw enough extra parallels to cover the entirety of the work’s tracklist. Due to that, “Collapse into Now” has unsurprisingly gotten a degree of flak from part of its audience. The bottom line, though, is that aside from giving the group’s final work a heavy emotional component as well as a marvelous thematic perspective, these links to the past lead to the creation of some downright fantastic tunes. As such, make no mistake, “Collapse into Now” is not just good as a farewell or as a record from three men who were past their artistic prime; it is a great piece even when held up against mighty flagpoles of the R.E.M. discography.
Because, yes, “Oh My Heart” is essentially a sequel to “Houston”, but it is nigh impossible not to be enraptured by the apocalyptic winds that emerge from the atmospheric wall it creates with an acoustic guitar and an accordion. “Every Day Is Yours to Win” certainly smells of “Everybody Hurts”; however, not only is it excellent in melody and mood, but it also might sound like a fresher pep talk to ears that are tired of hearing the “Automatic for the People” classic. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” has some “Monster” glam, but that good familiar ingredient is enhanced by one of Peter Buck’s greatest rocking riffs, an electric performance by the band, and the appropriately flamboyant participation of Peaches. “That Someone Is You” has heavy echoes of “Reckoning”, but that is by no means negative: that is the era when R.E.M. made its best bouncy tunes and the track lives up to those heights. “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” goes back to the mandolin to squeeze a touching reflection on flawed heroes from the instrument. And “Blue” might reuse the formula of “E-Bow the Letter”, but it does so to produce an instant masterpiece that is a brooding blend of spoken-word poetry, pain-laden Patti Smith vocals, ominous keyboards, and slow acoustic strumming.
This eclectic bunch of songs fits together quite well to form a delightfully varied record. Therefore, where “Around the Sun” and “Accelerate” were mostly painted with just one tone, albeit from rather distinct extremes, “Collapse into Now” feels looser, full of life, and more spontaneous. It makes sense; after all, given the members of R.E.M. were good friends who knew this was their last rodeo, it is to be expected that the album would have a celebratory vibe. And it seems these positive spirits translated themselves into wonderful tracks of varying moods, like “It Happened Today”, a simple acoustic tune that culminates in a pleasantly lengthy joyous wordless vocal singalong featuring Eddie Vedder; the rocking and rather catchy “Mine Smell Like Honey”, which like many tunes of the album has the greatness of its melody augmented by stellar backing vocals from Mike Mills; the beautiful and basic “Walk It Back”, a folk ballad built on nothing but an acoustic guitar and a piano; and, of course, “Überlin”, the best song of the record and an alternative rock track that has the R.E.M. signature all over it, stylishly treading the line between hopeful energy and mid-tempo balladry without fully committing to any format.
“Collapse into Now” is not without its problems. The opener “Discoverer” is loud, epic, and sweeping, but its main shouted hook is not as great as it seems to think it is. Moreover, “All the Best” is a run-of-the-mill rocker that pales in comparison to everything else in the album. Finally, a more prominent issue stems from Stipe’s lyrics, which started to decay in “Around the Sun” and that here, with some frequency, try to aim for his once fantastic cryptic and evocative images only to land as awkward, hence slightly deflating the power of some great instrumental and melodic moments that could have been better. Still, this is by all means a brilliant conclusion to a nearly flawless career. And it works both as a celebration of a rich artistic past and as a fantastic rock album by veterans who proved their songwriting and artistic chops time and time again through a little more than three decades.
I’m not super keen on Reveal or Around the Sun – those two are kind of the weakest REM period for me. They’re pretty low on energy and too synthetic, and have weaker songs than usual.
Accelerate and Collapse Into Now were a pretty good comeback.
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Fair enough. I like Reveal, and Up too for that matter. My dislike lies solely with Around the Sun, but I can see where you are coming from.
Still, you are right. Accelerate and Collapse Into Now are two great records, with the latter being my favorite of the post-Berry period.
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