Review Summary: Drifting off, but not fully asleep just yet
The past thirteen years have been strange ones for R.E.M. After dealing with the loss of drummer Bill Berry in 1998 they went on to produce the haunting Up
, an album that dealt with faith, loyalty and loss wrapped in inspired use of musical experimentation. 2001’s Reveal
carried on that good work and the group seemed on the cusp of a great new era. Internal strife and miscommunication soon reared their ugly head and were largely responsible for the insipid and wholly unmemorable Around The Sun
. Desperate to atone, they re-grouped and tried to deliver the best they could with 2009’s Accelerate
, a promising but ultimately sub-par effort.
R.E.M. may feel as if they have nothing left to prove, but in the build up to the release of Collapse Into Now
they have waged a sustained campaign of promises. In an interview with Rolling Stone the group stated their belief that this is their best since the commercial behemoth that was Automatic For The People
. Thems fighting words for many but can they back them up?
Not exactly. Collapse Into Now
is an admirable effort but flawed on a number of levels. More closely linked to Accelerate
than anything else they’ve released since the turn of the century and perhaps more of a relative to Monster
in the overall scheme of things, Collapse Into Now
presents a more raw and louder live sound. It’s a sound that suits them, but purists could justifiably point to their talent for utilising the subtleties of their music becoming lost in the mix. The group have harked back to the more memorable songs in their canon, but this can be interpreted as largely derivative in some quarters. Opener “Discoverer” chimes out with a guitar line reminiscent of 1988’s “Finest Worksong”. “Oh My Heart” is somewhat similar to 1998’s “New Test Leper” with its circular melody and folk-laden instrumentation whilst “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” is in the great tradition of frenetic R.E.M. tracks peppered with stream-of-consciousness vocals that make little or no sense. Of course, R.E.M. cannot be blamed for taking from their more tried and tested sounds and methods.
Stipe’s lyrics, once so insightful and thought-provoking, suffer from some serious lapses throughout. “Hey now, make your breakfast” he says on “Uberlin”, a banal lyric on a song that does not really get moving. There are plenty of moments where Stipe’s many refrains of “hey hey hey” or “huh-uh-uh” can’t help but make you feel as if he was simply struggling for lyrics or couldn’t muster the effort to do it. On “All The Best” he ponders if he has “outstayed my welcome” providing food for thought and perhaps ammunition for his naysayers.
There are some bright moments of invention here and its without doubt an improvement on Accelerate
, showing evidence of urgency and a verve that has been missing for some time. “All The Best” is a short, sharp shock of a rocker that gives off a sense of freedom from the always reliable Buck and Mills. “Mine Smell Like Honey” is much in the same vein but begs the question what exactly
of Stipe’s smell like honey?! Even more interesting is the album’s closer, “Blue”, with its feedback and static creating a swirl of noise around Stipe’s deadpan and machine-gun delivery, all complemented with a cameo from Stipe’s long-time hero Patti Smith. The album, with its bridge into the past, evokes an image of a band coming full circle and tying up the years with a form of finality. This notion is given weight when “Blue” slides into a reprise of “Discoverer”, giving the listener an idea of the end having a beginning.
The aftermath of this release positions R.E.M. at a crossroads. With this being their last album for Warner Brothers the obvious questions surrounding their future spring up. Will they release albums as an independent entity or will they quietly slip away with this as their swan song? It would certainly be a shame if they were to side with the latter idea. R.E.M. represents the ideal of an old heavyweight fighter; beaten and bruised but with a few more rounds left in them.