Monday, March 14, 2011

Album Review: "Collapse Into Now" by R.E.M.




There are a few things I need to say about this new R.E.M. album. Here are those things:

1) I am glad I listened to it all the way through more than once or twice before I decided to sit down and review it. If I hadn't I would have been all "BUUGUHH IT'S NOT AS GOOD AS ACCELERATE BUHH BUHUHGGUH"

2) It's not as good as Accelerate.

3) More than one record reviewer has referred to Collapse Into Now as their "comeback album," as if they hadn't said the exact same thing about Accelerate three years ago.

4) More than one record reviewer has referred to Collapse Into Now as either a sign of R.E.M. finally returning to their former glory, or as a disappointing mediocrity compared to their '82-'92 classic period. I even recall somebody saying "I'm sick and tired of all these so-so R.E.M. albums!" What these people need to understand is that R.E.M. are a group of 50-year-old men. Their status as trailblazing alternative jangle-men is way, way behind them. If you are expecting them to record a Document or even an Out Of Time again, you're fooling yourself. You need to gauge your expectations. Nothing gold can stay, Ponyboy.

5) These are some of the worst song titles in the history of anything. "Mine Smell Like Honey"? "Oh My Heart"? "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I"? "It Happened Today"? "Discoverer"? "Every Day Is Yours To Win"? I mean - this isn't - I don't know.

6) There are some pretty dumb, dumb lyrics on here! And they are impossible to ignore.

7) Michael Stipe's been sporting a straight-up beard recently. Is it weird that I kind of love Stipebeard?



No. I don't think it's weird.

OK I think the "list bit" has run its course. The truth about Collapse Into Now is that it is a pretty solid R.E.M. album despite some stupid lyrics and boring ballads. It mines their past discography just as much as Accelerate did, but it lacks that album's off-the-cuff energy and affability. You can hear them trying a little harder here, is what I mean. You can tell that the confidence boost from Accelerate's positive critical reception pushed them into trying to make an "important" album. They've also thrown some Peter Buck mandolin back into the mix in a clear attempt to recapture that Automatic For The People magic that does not really work. "Uberlin" is nice, but "Oh My Heart" is another awkward "Swan Swan H" retread and "Me, Marlon Brando" is pretty dull. And despite being an obvious attempt at re-creating "E-Bow The Letter," "Blue" could have been a pretty effective piece of sadness if not for Stipe's completely terrible spoken word poetry oh my GOD MAKE IT STOP.

But here's the thing - the fast-paced jangly "rockers" on this album are good. Very good! This does not make even a little bit of sense. 50-year-old men should not be this good at writing catchy little rock songs, but man, they still got it! Despite having the world's worst title, "Mine Smell Like Honey" is wonderfully catchy and features some never-not-great Mike Mills backing vocals, while "Alligator" and "That Someone Is You" are at least Accelerate-worthy. "Discoverer" is a solid "Finest Worksong" remake, "All The Best" would fit in pretty well on New Adventures In Hi-Fi and "It Happened Today" features some painfully gorgeous harmony vocals in its last minute or so (despite having what my friend Rick referred to as a "ridiculously 90s Sister Hazel-esque chord sequence," which is totally correct).

I did notice - are Stipe's vocals awkwardly buried in a good chunk of these tracks, or is it just me? You can really hear it on "Discoverer," especially. It was the first thing that hit me when I previewed some of these songs for the first time. Strange, considering how up-front and strong his vocals were on most of Accelerate and Live At The Olympia. You think there's something going on, there? Was that a conscious decision, to de-emphasize the vocals? Or maybe he's losing his voice or something. I don't know.

Bottom line: Collapse Into Now is exactly the kind of album I would expect from R.E.M. at this point in their career. To expect anything more from them is wrong. If they continue to churn out records of Collapse Into Now-level quality for the rest of their existence, I will be perfectly happy. If not, well, that's fine. They could retire for all I care. They're a bunch of middle-aged men who have already made a bunch of great, great albums. They don't need to do anything else. If they want to keep recording music, well, god bless 'em.

Still not as good as Accelerate, though.