The "Collapse" Of R.E.M.

While the esteemed Athens, GA band's new album, Collapse Into Now, doesn't hit streets until March 8, NPR is currently streaming the album in its entirety.

While longtime fans greet each new R.E.M. album with warm anticipation, the sad truth is that each new lap around the track, so to speak, sees this legendary band's once-rabid fan base noticeably dwindle. Is it a case of life (marriage, kids, jobs, mortgages, etc.) simply overtaking the more carefree pursuits of youth (keeping up with our favorite band's every move), or is it, in fact, a case of a great band simply overstaying its welcome?

Granted, there are older - and lesser - bands still making a darn good living on the nostalgia circuit, but R.E.M. is a band still bent on creating a new musical landscape, not simply reliving old ones, no matter how much money might be in it.

This, of course, is because the members of R.E.M. are, themselves, quite comfortable as far as bank accounts and retirement funds go. They have absolutely no need, or desire, to partake in 80's/90's nostalgia. They are artists and, like any good artist, they live to create!

We, on the other hand, are a world-famous blog extraordinaire whose ears have been trained to spot bullshit and/or beauty wherever it may lurk and to immediately alert our readers so that they may avoid stepping in anything stinky. Let's face it, the world can always use another great rock & roll album. However, it doesn't need yet another crap piece of plastic.

"Discoverer" kicks off the new R.E.M. platter in elegiac fashion, as if Peter Buck might have been listening to U2's War for three straight days, save for trips to the restroom where he made sure to blast a little Grand Funk, before tracking this tune. Stipe soon enters the musical equation with all the subtlety of a man shouting into a megaphone and, while such a move is meant to convey the intended urgency, by the time the track subsides, we listeners are left wondering why.

"All The Best" quickly follows, adding a little gasoline to the fire. In it, Stipe wholeheartedly addresses the idea of "sticking around too long" and "showing the kids how to do it" - as if to beat rock critics to the punch. Stipe is singing with the same urgency as on the previous cut, but, on this one, it feels like he means it. A nerve has been touched. You can question his choice of fashion accessories, but if you choose to question his ability to rock as a man on the verge of turning 50, you will quickly discover that this kitten has claws. "It's just like me to overstay my welcome," he declares with equal parts pride and venom.

What makes "All The Best" such a revelation is that it's the first true all-out rock cut R.E.M. has done where it didn't seem like their hand was being forced to do so.

"Überlin" follows, slowing the pace considerably and heading into "introspective" territory. The song itself is melodically similar to "Drive" (from 1992's Automatic For The People), but I'm not gonna lose any sleep over a band stealing from themselves. The song still manages to stand on its own, highlighted by yet another heartfelt Stipe vocal performance augmented by Mike Mills' perfectly understated backing vocals. Whatever songs may first catch your ear on first listen, this is a song that you will find yourself coming back to, mark my words.

"Oh My Heart" continues the introspection, with Stipe singing in a lower register, creating a mood that is full of both sadness and celebration. This is a song created by a band well aware of its own mortality, seeing those who came before them, fall, as all things eventually do, whether they be trees or empires.

"It Happened Today", while ambitious, shows the band revisiting "Out Of Time"-era themes and instrumentation (Hey Pete, do you still have that mandolin?) and, while it may initially seem like a throwaway cut after a couple stone-cold stunners, this song will sneak up on you when you least expect it. My guess is right around the third listen or so, you'll glance at your iPod with amazement. "Where was that song the last time I listened to this album?!"

"Every Day Is Yours To Win" would surely make for a great title to the next Tony Robbins self-help book, but, in R.E.M.'s hands, it becomes a rallying cry for the jaded, performed with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Not a joke song, mind you, but one that proves you just can't take your eye off this band.

By now, it should be dawning on you that, while every new album by such a revered band is automatically heralded as "their best album since insert-name-of-last-platinum-record-here", in the case of R.E.M., this really is their best album in quite some time. While others heralded 2008's Accelerate as a rocking return to form, I never bought into that belief, hearing only a band forced to right a sinking ship by making a rock album they weren't truly ready to make.

Hearing this new album, though, I can see the purpose that Accelerate served its purpose by waking this giant from its slumber and bringing them back in touch with each weapon within their immense musical arsenal.

Now, if you're anything like me, when you lay your hands on a new album by a beloved band, the first thing you so is scan the song titles. You don't know why you do it, you just do. Thus, your curiosity is instantly raised by a title like "Mine Smell Like Honey". Maybe not enough to make it the first song you listen to, but one that makes you listen to the song with a little more attention wondering what of Mr. Stipe's might smell of honey. I've spun the song numerous times and I still have no idea what he's going on about.

That, of course, is an awesome thing when you think about it. Remember when we had no idea what Stipe was singing about? Hell, we could barely make out the words and, when we could, we were still just as lost, if not more. Those were the days, my friend, knowing you could always count on Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe to leave you joyously confused, but never more sure of yourself and your band.

Those were the damn days!

"Walk It Back" is a wistful missive of a song, heartbreaking in its piano-laced simplicity, hauntingly ethereal production, and its brevity. It sweeps in softly, steals your breath, then exits before you can get it back.

"Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter" is a total throwaway of a tune - a B-side from a band who used to specialize in such things, if ever there was one - but damn if it won't have you treating your steering wheel like a set of Keith Moon's drums. Be careful not to use your gas and brake pedals as double-bass drum pedals.

"That Someone Is You" follows, indicating that, for this final stretch of the album, R.E.M. seem to have shifted into a new gear. When's the last time R.E.M. sounded this damn fun?! I honestly can't remember, myself.

"Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I" sees Mr. Stipe shift his focus from Andy Kaufman to yet another flawed hero for the sake of exploring a magical world that exists only in the mind's eye, where anything and everything is possible. It just wouldn't be a latter-day R.E.M. album without such a detour.

Of course, none of this prepares the listener for the album closer, "Blue", which features a great vocal performance by Patti Smith before reprising the album's opening track.

As a longtime R.E.M. fan who grew disenchanted by the band's concessions to the big time right around the time Monster was released, I can tell you that Collapse Into Now is the musical equivalent of reconnecting with an old friend, one you were once so close to, have seen around over the years, but are finally able to spend some quality time catching up, and enjoying every beautiful second of it.

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