How do you write about your favorite band — the one that’s followed you from junior high awkwardness and high school pining to college loneliness and adulthood fumbling? The same one that’s accompanied first crushes, first love and first heartbreak – and the group that’s also been the soundtrack to career success, triumph, failure and uncertainty? That’s my challenge when approaching R.E.M.’s new album, Collapse Into Now, the Athens, Georgia, band’s fifteenth studio album.
R.E.M. has been my favorite band since fall 1992, when I bought the translucent-yellow cassette of Automatic for the People at the mall. (I purchased a cassingle of Poison’s “Stand” the very same day, but the less said about that, the better. I was thirteen and didn’t know any better.) I know the band’s catalog inside and out, backwards and forwards; my license plate is even based on the 1985 tune “Driver 8.” I’m at once critically qualified to write about Collapse – and a fan predisposed to like everything the band releases.
This new album is easily the most welcoming release from R.E.M. in years, one that feels effortless and immediately enveloping. Although 1998’s Up is an underrated, dreamy masterpiece, the LPs that followed – 2001’s Reveal and especially 2004’s Around the Sun — suffocated because of studio laboring. Even 2008’s Accelerate, which was a raucous, elbows-out return to rock form, in hindsight felt almost too meticulous, like the band was overachieving at trying to sound like R.E.M. That latter problem has plagued U2 as well; the Irish quartet’s last few albums have felt like releases from the world’s best U2 cover band instead of byproducts of the real thing.
But Collapse sounds free of self-imposed creative constraints or past precedents. Quick, raging rockers burst forth, buoyed by spurts of genuine energy and vibrant tempos – two things sorely missing in recent years. The rollercoaster-breathless single “Mine Smell Like Honey” switches between sunburned jangle and Dinosaur Jr-like distorted guitar crunch, while the sub-two-minute “That Someone Is You” is a jolt of hi-fi garage rock. More impressive is “Alligator Aviator Autopilot,” a glam-punk splat featuring playground hollering from Peaches and dynamite guitar crunch from Patti Smith group member Lenny Kaye. Even the midtempo “Discoverer” – a kissing cousin to Green’s “Turn You Inside Out,” what with its droning, copper-burnished guitars – feels engaged and alive.
More important, the band’s subtler moments also feel wholly unforced. “Walk It Back” is a starry-eyed, Burt Bacharach-like lounge piece; the casual piano, searing strings and Mike Mills’ plush harmonies bleed vulnerability. Mandolin takes center stage on the elegiac “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I,” and “Uberlin” is a brisk, all-business folk-rock strut with acoustic guitar, organ and clockwork percussion. And “It Happened Today” is lovely in its simplicity. Strummy campfire guitars, plenty of Rickenbacker chime and gorgeous dueling harmonies from Mills, Michael Stipe and guest Eddie Vedder create sentimental bliss. The R.E.M. members sound like an old friends as they sing, “It happened today/Hooray/Hooray/It happened — hip, hip hooray.”
The sentiment isn’t exactly clear-cut, but it is oddly comforting – which sums up Collapse’s lyrical themes in general. The protagonists of these songs are searching for meaning, searching for place, searching for what’s important. Sometimes they’re successful; at other times, they fall short. Expectations crumble, surprises crop up, causes for celebration arise. It’s a very universal album, one whose lyrics are as relatable as its music.
At the same time, they’re vague enough to invite repeated analysis. Snatches of description – “cartoon quicksand” in “That Someone is You” or the “sandpaper, paper mache stock, cobweb” mentioned in “Discoverer” – create flashbulb images which dovetail nicely with the blink-and-miss tunes. In many places, the message is less important than the way the words tussle with the music; inscrutability and enigmas are the rule, not the exception.
In recent years, the band’s lyrics have been maligned because of the latter two qualities. (And, let’s be honest, a line such as “Leaving was never my proud,” from “Leaving New York,” is not great.) But people who grumble about Stipe’s lyrical decline conveniently forget how nonsensical he’s been off-and-on for several decades now. (Remember “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People”? How about “Binky the Doormat”?) His has been a gradual shift toward abstraction, rather than a sudden evolution. If anything, the progression has just been more obvious because his voice is no longer mumbled or buried in the mix.
Moreover, Stipe’s been finding his footing along with the rest of the band in recent years. Like the characters in these lyrics, R.E.M.’s had to learn to recalibrate its heart, and find out what drives its lyrical passion. The vague political commentary on newer albums didn’t quite work, in part because people don’t generally turn to bands anymore to be their mouthpiece. With the countless options provided by the Internet, there’s no shortage of places to learn about injustices and get involved with causes. While the concise talking points the band had in the ‘80s (the environment, liberal causes, AIDS education) had a galvanizing impact on fans, we no longer need to look to R.E.M. to be educators and energizers.
So what do we need R.E.M. for? That’s the silent question the band has obviously been trying to answer for years now, as it’s fallen out of favor with mainstream popular culture and younger fans. Whether the band knew it or not, each album since 1994’s Monster has seemed like a mini-identity crisis, a very-public display of the growing pains and creative struggles it somehow escaped in the ‘80s. But Collapse finally seems like a definitive statement, R.E.M. shedding expectations and going for broke. As a fan, that’s exactly what I want. I don’t need the band to speak for me or mirror what’s in my heart anymore. They don’t have to save my life; they don’t have to be genius poets. I don’t need to take the same things from R.E.M. I did when I was fourteen, what I did when I was nineteen or even what I did when I was twenty-five.
But I do expect — and need – the band to create music with urgency, feeling and passion. And that’s Collapse in a nutshell, from start to the album’s stunning final song, “Blue.” As inky guitars moan and swirl in a cross between a Neil Young jam and the storm-at-sea style of Out of Time’s “Country Feedback,” Stipe mumbles slam-poetry in his trademark gruff monotone. Then, like a siren rising out of the ocean, Patti Smith joins the fray and adds pained wailing. The song swells and curls like the tornado-backmasking at the end of The Wizard of Oz – until the main riff from Collapse’s first song, “Discoverer,” chimes in again. The symmetry is perfect, the closure pristine – and the emotional devastation complete.