A Review of R.E.M. “Collapse Into Now”

By Charlie Olvera, March 15, 2011

I came of age listening to rock and roll right around the same time that R.E.M. came of age in the eyes of progressive rock radio and the critical press.  R.E.M. had been a “buzz” band since the early/mid 80s, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that Out Of Time and Automatic For The People came crashing through the gate along with a host of other “college rock” bands: The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, etc.  Back then, it was hard for R.E.M. to do any wrong.  Their collaborations with producer Scott Litt, which started on 1987’s aptly titled Document and continued through 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, consistently set the bar for popular independent rock music in America, and, what’s more, they did what The Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. never could; R.E.M. produced bona fide hits.  R.E.M. was a standout band: in a time when most early indie rock bands were noisy, squealing, squalling outfits borne out of equal parts hardcore angst and energy and post-punk ambitions to artiness, R.E.M.’s jangly, poppy, melancholy take on American rock music at the end of the 1980’s stood alone.

So, almost 30 years into their career, where is R.E.M.’s legacy?  The Pixies and Husker Dü found their true believers in grunge, and, later, post-hardcore (even the unfairly maligned and often misapplied “emo” owes a lot to the Huskers), and Dinosaur Jr’s slacker noise found its standard borne up both by adamant lo-fi songwriters like The Silver Jews and weirdo indie psychers like Animal Collective.  But who’s taken up R.E.M.’s mantle?

If you’re reading the same reviews I am, it seems that R.E.M’s following stands principally among male music critics who grew up listening to college radio in the 1980s and 1990s.  Reviews of R.E.M.’s new album, Collapse Into Now, have been nothing less than glowing, proclaiming a comeback from a band that had been, if you believe the hype, in gradual decline ever since 1998’s Reveal.  It’s being hailed as a return to the heady days of Out of Time and Automatic For The People, with a little bit of the aggressive edge that 1994’s Monster brought to their sonic palette.

Well, let me be clear: in my estimation, this is not a comeback in the least.  Tracks like “All The Best” or “Mine Smell Like Honey” still evoke the old, energetic, slightly punky R.E.M, but the bulk of the album seems to be awash in desperate grabs for more contemporary sounds (like the chanson-meets-cabaret vibe of “Oh My Heart”, actually one of the album’s better tracks, or the Beirut-esque “Every Day Is Yours To Win”).  At times, R.E.M. seem to be yearning to move beyond the intimacy of their early work, trying their hand at Sigur Ros-style expansiveness on tracks like “Überlin” and “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”, but they never seem to be patient enough to let those tracks build in intensity and emotion, and the songs end up directionless and flat lining.

The best tracks on the album bear the influence of a longtime R.E.M. collaborator, Patti Smith, but even on songs like “Blue” (which finds Michael Stipe trying his hand at Smith-style poetry) or “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” (which boasts a fantastic guitar solo from the Patti Smith Group’s inimitable Lenny Kaye), R.E.M. feels neutered and uncomfortable with the more punk-ish subject material.  For a band that’s staked an entire lyric tradition upon the proverb “to thine own self, be true”, R.E.M. seems anxious to avoid the signature jangle that made their classic albums such a delight.  Part of the blame can be laid at the feet of producer Jacknife Lee, who doesn’t seem as concerned with replicating that signature R.E.M. sound as he does with interjecting his own sonic ideas.  Hints of Lee’s resume, which includes U2, Snow Patrol, and Bloc Party, bleed through on tracks like “Discoverer”, but, in R.E.M’s hands, these sounds are more like pale imitations than they are peerless innovations.

This tendency towards imitation over innovation seems to be the thread tying the album together: even when R.E.M write songs that sound like classic-period R.E.M., it still feels like the band is just doing its best impression of itself, churning out a workmanlike, ersatz greatest-hits collection from an alternate universe.  I’m not trying to suggest that R.E.M. should give up searching for new sounds, but when a band’s identity is so strongly connected to a unique and immediately identifiable sound, it strikes me as a poor idea to stray too far afield from it, especially this late in a career.  Sorry to disappoint, but if you’re looking for the exciting, hard-to-pigeonhole R.E.M. of the 80s and early 90s, I’d suggest digging out your copies of Green and Automatic For The People, rather than picking up Collapse Into Now; it’s not worth tarnishing a legacy over.

Track listing

All songs written by Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, except as noted.

  1. “Discoverer” – 3:31
  2. “All the Best” – 2:48
  3. “Überlin” – 4:15
  4. “Oh My Heart” (Buck, Mills, Stipe, and Scott McCaughey) – 3:21
  5. “It Happened Today” – 3:49
  6. “Every Day Is Yours to Win” – 3:26
  7. “Mine Smell Like Honey” – 3:13
  8. “Walk It Back” – 3:24
  9. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” – 2:45
  10. “That Someone Is You” – 1:44
  11. “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” – 3:03
  12. “Blue” (Buck, Mills, Stipe, and Patti Smith) – 5:46

Personnel

R.E.M.

  • Peter Buck – guitar, bass guitar, mandolin, production
  • Mike Mills – bass guitar, guitar, backing vocals, keyboards, production
  • Michael Stipe – lead vocals, production, packaging

Additional musicians

  • Shamarr Allen – trumpet on “Discoverer”, “It Happened Today”, and “Oh My Heart”
  • Greg Hicks – trombone
  • Craig Klein – trombone
  • Mark Mullins – trombone and horn arrangements
  • Joel Gibb – vocals on “It Happened Today”
  • Lenny Kaye – guitar solo on “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter”, guitar solo on “Blue”
  • Jacknife Lee – production, mixing, keyboards, guitar
  • Leroy Jones – trumpet on “Discoverer”, “It Happened Today”, and “Oh My Heart”
  • Kirk M. Joseph, Sr. – sousaphone on “Discoverer”, “It Happened Today”, and “Oh My Heart”
  • Scott McCaughey – guitar, keyboards, backing vocals, accordion
  • Peaches – vocals on “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter”
  • Bill Rieflin – drums, bouzouki, keyboards, guitar
  • Patti Smith – vocals on “Blue” and “Discoverer”
  • Eddie Vedder – vocals on “It Happened Today”
Why not give this 14 Day Free Trail a Try? Unlimited Downloads and No Obligation!! R.E.M. Collapse Into Now is there in it’s entirety. Download it for free with the Trial! If you still want to heat it!

 


Posted by Charlie Olvera


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