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The real problem with post-Up R.E.M. is that since Athens, Georgia's favourite sons bashed out those astounding first 11 albums in just 17 years, the band has effectively become a part time proposition, knocking out just four records in the last 13 years. It’s no longer the only artistic outlet for its members, and you get the impression that when Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills convene for the leisurely, two year, multi-studio process that results in a new R.E.M. record, it’s not so much three desperately driven individuals making whatever music comes naturally, but three talented multi-millionaires trying to work out what the new R.E.M. album should sound like.
Hence Reveal overplayed the summery vibes, Accelerate pushed the short sharp rock songs a bit far, and catalogue whipping boy Around the Sun simply got flattened by too much studio tinkering. Collapse Into Now, as the band have stated in nigh on every interview for it, did not come with a game plan. And it shows: it really does sound like a record that was recorded in four different studios, in two different continents, over a long period of time, with the assistance of 14 guest musicians. There are strident rock songs, singer-songwriter-ish ballads, zingy splashes of power pop, moments of grating self-reference, too many songs that sound like other R.E.M. songs, and an unexpected bounty of gorgeously innocent-sounding music. Green and New Adventures in Hi-Fi were similarly diverse, but in each case the band was obviously coming from a certain ‘place’. Here, the closing reprise of opener ‘Discoverer’ serves to underscore how little bearing most of these songs have on each other. It’s the least focussed album in the band's catalogue, and probably the one that breaks the least new territory for them, which is a shame, because that incoherency belies the generally high quality of the music.
‘Discoverer’ is the song that we’ve had for the longest, and while some have grumbled that it harks back too pointedly to the martial stridency of their late Eighties material, to me it just sounds like a band firing on all cylinders. Buck’s guitar peals and rings like an army on the march, Bill Rieflin’s whumping drums are heroic and Stipe is on magnificent form: that weird, spontaneous “laughing!” that interrupts the first chorus, the growl in his voice as he flings it through the near indecipherable line about “that vodka espresso night of discovery” - great stuff. And moreover, the feel of the song is beautifully R.E.M.-ish – in a visceral sense it’s obviously a surging call to arms; literally its meaning remains opaque.
Unfortunately that call to arms is not immediately met by the strongest of material. ‘All the Best’ is thumped out with heart, but nonetheless feels like a less interesting version of a Monster rocker (‘I Took Your Name’, perhaps). ‘Uberlin’ suffers from the banality of sentiment that seems to plague Stipe whenever he writes a ballad these days. “I know, I know, I know what I am chasing/ I know, I know, I know that this is changing me”: it’s hardly horrible, but there’s a woolly MOR-ishness to this, ‘Walk It Back’ and ‘Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I’ that’s a bit sad coming from the guy who wrote 'Perfect Circle' and ‘New Test Leper’.
‘Oh My Heart’s references to Accelerate’s ‘Houston’ are a bit cringe, but the rippling brass and rich, plangent chorus hints at what proves Collapse Into Now’s saving grace: a heartbreaking innocence, even naivety, that suffuses a clutch of its tracks. ‘It Happened Today’ is the case in point: Stipe sounds young and soft as he sighs “I have found my voice” before the song breaks into a wall of bucolic choral sound that vaguely recalls Out of Time’s ‘Endgame’. It is lovely and it feels totally wrong that it’s track five, not the end of the record, and that’s kind of all the more reason to enjoy it. ‘Every Day Is Yours To Win’ overcomes some suspect rhyming couplets via its beautiful music box twinkling, Stipe’s compressed vocal puttering and bumbling like a drowsy old Victorian nursery rhyme. ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’ has a slightly alarming name, but in a way it’s quite reassuring to have no idea what Stipe is going on about, and the Mills-assisted, totally un-rock’n’roll chorus of “dig a hole, dig it deeper, climb a mountain, climb it steeper” is just peachy, harmonies as unselfconscious as the dawn and a real, honest-to-God reminder of the folky purity of the band’s very early years. The sub two minute ‘That Someone Is You’ is cute as a bug power pop that you’d have to be a bit sick to hate. And unlike much of the band’s laterday output, it’s very hard to imagine what conversation or pre-planning could possibly have led to the pleasingly stoopid (and catchy) Peaches collaboration ‘Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter’.
So the whole ‘innocent’ thing is an angle. But it’s not enough to make sense of the album as a whole, especially when the ballads are so old mannish, when there’s so much overt knowingness and self-reference on some of the songs. The concluding ‘Blue’, for instance, a Beat-ish poem set to burning feedback, spiked with a Patti Smith guest vocal, is excellent but would probably drop one’s draw an inch or two more if it didn’t so obviously recall ‘Country Feedback’ and ‘E-Bow the Letter’, or if it made more sense in the wider context of the record.
Like all of R.E.M.'s most recent albums, Collapse Into Now is flawed; a reflection, I’m speculating, on the fact that that band’s working process is now flawed. But even as part timers, nobody should be surprised that R.E.M. can still make excellent music, though perhaps great albums now elude them. Once they brought torrents of light into the world; now, they can still brighten it, if only a little.
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