Collapse Into Now proves the veteran rockers have still got it.
Thoughtfully arranged and eclectic, the latest from REM is a good listen
Collapse Into Now
Like all veteran rock acts, REM must do a fair bit of head scratching if they are to make each successive LP an event; something more than more of the same. The Athens, Georgia, band's 15th studio album also happens to coincide with the 30th anniversary of their formation, and that landmark has upped the ante. Unsurprisingly, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills appear to be taking stock of the situation. They are also doing all they can to justify REM's raison d'être here in 2011.
"Let's show the kids how to do it fine", sings Stipe, throwing down the gauntlet on the zesty, propulsive All the Best, and the carefully plotted promotional campaign for Collapse Into Now has cemented the sense of a lateral-thinking act fighting its corner. In some European territories the record premiered on Spotify, while Stipe, ever the culture-vulture, was recently interviewed at a London screening of the short films he commissioned to accompany each of the album's 12 songs. Fans have also had the chance to download and remix audio files for It Happened Today - a good and pragmatic idea, actually, as it's one of Collapse Into Now's weakest songs.
Intriguingly, all of the above may be a smokescreen for what's really going on chez REM. Dysfunctional and barely talking to each other circa 2004's career-low Around the Sun, the trio rallied somewhat with 2008's lean, punkier Accelerate, but one sensed that it was creative tension - rather than a renewed closeness - that fired the good stuff. Similarly, Collapse Into Now does little to dispel the notion that Stipe, Buck and Mills are now anything more than colleagues toiling to preserve something bigger and more life-enhancing than their estrangement. It's an unfortunate but not necessarily unfruitful scenario, and Collapse Into Now is actually a decent record.
If Accelerate was something of a return to the band's roots, the more thoughtfully arranged and eclectic Collapse Into Now has several songs that recapture the mood of REM's mid-period masterpiece, Automatic for the People. Thus if Uberlin, with its gently picked acoustic guitar melodies, is this album's Drive, then Every Day Is Yours to Win - a glistening, pretty thing with glockenspiel and some typically measured Buck arpeggios - is the record's Everybody Hurts, its lyric packing a similar message of universal struggle and, ultimately, hope. The free-associating Alligator Aviator Autopilot Alligator, meanwhile, is as playful as Automatic for the People's The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, but seems more self-conscious, somehow.
To these ears, guest Patti Smith's ever-commanding presence is somewhat squandered on Blue, a dense art-rock dirge that Stipe splurges with echoing, spoken-word fragments, and only Stipe's internal editor could green-light a song as pretentiously titled as Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I. After those songs, a brief reprise of the record's wide-eyed, outward-looking opening track Discoverer is most welcome. It's also a reminder of the odds-defying vibrancy that Collapse Into Now alights upon more than once.