Posted by: Jeff | March 1, 2011

Album Review: R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

Update: You can now stream this album in its entirety through NPR’s First Listen feature here.  NPR’s Robin Hilton adds the editorialization that “As a longtime (and huge) R.E.M. fan, I figured we were done getting truly great, inspired albums from the group. But Collapse Into Now reaffirms R.E.M. as a vital, thoughtful and gifted band with plenty left to say. I can’t wait to hear what comes next.”

***

R.E.M. are releasing Collapse Into Now – their 15th studio album- this month, and a sneak preview of the whole thing is now available courtesy of the folks at Consequence of Sound.  After one listen, it appears that R.E.M. remains as relevant (and as good) as ever before, extending their run of impressive releases into yet another decade.

This is a very good alternative album, and one that I’d go so far as to suggest is one of the best in the genre in recent years.  “Discoverer” shows Stipe and company establish a welcome edge to the new album that has been missing in the past few releases.  In the midst of wailing guitars, Stipe chants the title for all those just discovering R.E.M. for the first time.  The guitar work on this album hearkens back to 1994’s anthemic Monster, rivaling that album in electric bombast and swagger on alt-rock gems like “All the Best” and “Mine Smell Like Honey”.

The band maintains it’s acoustic delicacy as well, most notably on tracks like “Uberlin” and “Oh My Heart”, which would feel quite at home on the band’s iconic Out of Time or Automatic for the People releases of the early 90s.  With a verse structure reminiscent of one of Stipe’s strongest vocal performances on Out of Time‘s “Low”, “Uberlin” does run the risk of sounding too blatant a throwback.  In fact, the greatest criticism that could be levied against Collapse Into Now is that it is the work of a band all too cognizant of its past.  Gone are the sugary pop sentiments found on recent albums like Accelerate and Reveal, abandoned for a sound that the band perfected long ago.

But it’s worth remembering that this is indeed a sound perfected by R.E.M., and even when revisiting past territory it’s a welcome return to form.  “It Happened Today” finds the band occupying the anthemic middle-ground between acoustic intimacy and alternative rock universality, giving way to a release where the band – and Stipe – really seem like they’ve let loose, just playing rather than concerning themselves with the particulars of writing hooks and choruses.  It’s a fun moment on the album, and one that balances well the stylistic choices on the rest of the album.

The band returns to alt-rock form on “Mine Smell Like Honey”, an awkwardly titled track that feels ripped out of the alternative heyday of the nineties.  What R.E.M. has always done well is keep their alternative uplifting, and on the grittiest tracks on this album – “That Someone Is You” and the excellent “All the Best” – they hit that stride perfectly, seaming frenetic grunge drums and guitar with slow-paced chorus singalongs.  The amusing “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando & I” is actually a touching piano and guitar ballad, and the album’s closer, “Blue” is a winding slow-burner, adopting some of the instrumental tones of previous albums and melding them into a slow fade back to the triumphant chant of “Discoverer”.

If this is indeed the last R.E.M. release, as some fear, it means that the band will be going out on top once again, having achieved something few bands of their duration can – a great late-career release.  On “All the Best” Stipe shows off his masterful pacing on the chorus, announcing in staccato that “It’s / just / like / me / to / o / ver / stay / my / wel / come / man.”  But on Collapse Into Now, R.E.M. isn’t overstaying their welcome – they’re earning it.

It’s interesting to me that R.E.M. is so often over-looked in conversations about influential and long-running bands.  One of the first true alternative acts, R.E.M.’s impact on rising bands throughout the 80s, 90s, 00’s and now 10’s is undeniable.  And at 15 album-length original releases, they’re easily among the most prolific bands of all time.  For comparison, here is a list of other prolific artists with their studio album totals:

  • The Rolling Stones – 24
  • Bruce Springsteen – 18
  • R.E.M. – 15
  • Aerosmith – 14
  • The Cure – 13
  • U2 – 12
  • The Beatles – 12
  • Joy Division/New Order – 10
  • Led Zeppelin – 9
  • Pearl Jam – 9
  • Radiohead – 8

With the quality of Collapse Into Now, R.E.M. has now released a great album in each of four separate decades, a feat that few if any (maybe Bruce?) of the bands listed above can claim.  Most artists struggle to maintain such relevance in late career releases – look at U2, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones – but Michael Stipe and company are still on top of their game.

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Responses

  1. […] Album Review: R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now « The New Millennial Related Posts:New R.E.M. album 'Collapse Into Now' Review | Features … The […]

  2. Kenny Rogers has recorded 65 albums. So has Loretta Lynn. Not bands, but artists, and very prolific ones. Just to let you know.

    • The post was implicitly about rock bands which is why it also doesn’t include Stevie Wonder (23), Michael Jackson/Jackson 5 (22), or Madonna (11). That said, I thought Kenny Rogers just owned a chicken restaurant, but according to Wikipedia he has released 25 studio albums (not 65), and he hasn’t charted above #121 since 1985, so the point about late-career relevance still stands I think!

  3. Read my full review of ‘Collapse Into Now’ here: http://realgonerocks.blogspot.com/2011/03/rem-collapse-into-now.html


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