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

After the mixed reception that greeted 2004’s Around the Sun, R.E.M. seemed to rally with its studio followup, Accelerate, released four years later. Both critical response and sales figures seemed to acknowledge that album’s improvement over its predecessor. The group toured briefly in support of Accelerate, but with the benefit of hindsight it now seems clear that the alternarock heroes were winding things down.

It would be three more years until another R.E.M. studio album appeared. The three remaining members – vocalist Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills – had made the decision even before sessions began that Collapse Into Now would be their final record. While they didn’t make public their intention to disband, all three made it clear in interviews that there would be no live dates in support of the album. Six months after Collapse Into Now’s March 2011 release, R.E.M. made it official and announced the end of the group.

The end wasn’t acrimonious; in retrospect, it was merely the next – okay, final – step in the group’s 31 year run. And while Collapse Into Now is not exactly Abbey Road, it does represent the group wrapping things up on its terms, not someone else’s. Certainly not the greatest entry in R.E.M.’s catalog, their last record is certainly not least among the band’s releases. In fact it holds up well against prime-era (i.e. I.R.S. releases and Out of Time) albums. And as with the recent vinyl reissue of Around the Sun, a new LP release of Collapse Into Now presents a fineopportunity to give this overlooked album another listen.

It’s more than bit jarring to spin Collapse Into Now immediately after listening to R.E.M.’s debut single “Radio Free Europe.” But then what bunch of guys in their 50s resembles that same crowd when they were 20? Especially in light of the journey that the group embarked upon in those intervening 31 years, Collapse Into Now is best measured on its own merits, setting aside (as much as is possible) such larger contexts.

But that’s not practical, so my exploration of the record will be peppered with references to the band’s past work.

The record opens with “Discoverer,” a tidy reconciliation of the textures that made early R.E.M. special alongside the big sound of the band’s later Warner Brothers releases. The song dewlivers a kind of post-jangle vibe, hinting at the Rickebacker sound of I.R.S. record but with the heft and punch of Mosnter-and-beyond releases. And Stipe’s wonderfully inscrutable vocalisms return; they seem more suited for the music than the more straightforward singing of later albums.

“All the Best” is another strong tune; in places Buck’s guitar work is reminiscent of Hindu Love Gods’ cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.” Two songs in and the band is rocking harder than it did anywhere on Around the Sun. And the hook is sharp. Mills’ top-notch basswork had long served as a kind of countermelodic device, and it does so skillfully here. His (or someone’s) keyboards enhance, not overwhelm, the tune. And after just under three minutes of hard charging, the song stops o na dime, much like the R.E.M. of old. Splendid.

One could be forgive for thinking of “Überlin” as a kid of “Losing My Religion” rewrite; from Stipe’s vocal delivery to Buck’s mandolin, it does indeed possess a character quite similar to that tune. Set that similarity aside and what’s left is an ace tune with great harmonies and a yearning, melancholy character. “Überlin” may be the best late-period song from the group.

Horns aren’t something one might expect to find on an R.E.M. album, but here they are (briefly) on “Oh My Heart.” Like its predecessor, the song feels oddly familiar: should we call this album Outtakes of Time? Buck’s lovely mandolin and Scott McCaughey’s accordion come together to make something lovely.

A thread connecting many of the Collapse Into Now tracks is the band’s predilection for a few seconds of red-herring sonics to open each track. “It Happened Today” continues this theme. Once that’s out of the way, the song unfolds into a widescreen arrangement long on vocalisms and fairly short on lyrics. And it works remarkably well. One can imagine the song working quite well live in concert, but of course that never happened.

The contemplative “Every Day is Yours to Win” is reminiscent of Automatic for the People’s dialed-down energy. Buck’s squalling guitar lines are deftly placed at strategic points into the arrangement. Drummer Bill Rieflin holds way back for the song’s first half, and when he comes in, it’s tastefully done.

Setting aside its uncharacteristically sophomoric title, “Mine Smell Like Honey” should please fans of Green and Monster-era R.E.M. The song roars with spirit, energy and rock ‘n’ roll commitment. “Walk it Back” is the kind of piano-centric tune that predominated Around the sun, but its dolorous melody and spare vocal are effective in their own way. Buck’s subtle guitar work here is evocative of Ziggy Stardust-era Mick Ronson.

R.E.M. has always had in this toolbox the ability to rock out; they do just that on the thrilling “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter.” Guest guitarist Lenny Kaye helps out in that regard, and backing vocalist Peaches sounds in turn like Kate Pierson and Lita Ford. The guitar licks are as memorable and catchy as anything in the band’s catalog.

“That Someone is You” feels like a rewrite of parts of “In’s the End of the World (And I Feel Fine),” but 31 years into their run, R.E.M. has more than earned the right to chase its own tail once in a while. Considered on its own, it’s a solid melodic rocker.

Idiosyncratic titles crop up throughout the R.E.M. catalog. And “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” is another entry in that category. Rieflin’s cymbal-less percussion and the arrangement’s subtle string work combine to create a haunting feel. For listeners who appreciate the downtempo, thoughtful side of the band, this is an overlooked gem.

The last track on the last R.E.M. album is a cowrite with Patti Smith. Everything about feel like a farewell. The heavily reverbed guitar squeals, Stipe’s near-manic spoken recitation and Smith’s haunting vocal add up to a mysterious yet somehow fitting final bow from the group. There’s something heartbreaking about the song. And the fact that it’s the only song on the LP for which lyrics aren’t printed only adds to its mystery. The extended, shoegazey instrumental outro leads into a kind of reprise of the opening track, bringing thing full circle.

And full circle is as good a description as any for the last word from R.E.M. The album reprises most all of the qualities that made the group special, wrapping everything up in a collection of solid songs –no truly weak ones – that serves as a fitting goodbye.