Let’s get one thing straight. R.E.M. has done a damn fine job remaining relevant throughout the years, and the mere fact that they’re still releasing albums at all is a huge accomplishment. Everything has moved, changed and evolved from the band lineup to their label, from the cultural and music scene to even the device on which we listen to music, and R.E.M. has arguably thrived through it all. They’re sure-fire rock-n-roll hall of famers who have become the quintessential alternative band spanning three decades going on four.
That said, why the hell would anyone ever expect another Automatic For The People or Out of Time from a band whose catalog has undergone so many changes? Part of their legacy will be built upon their ability to change sound, and make diverse masterpieces such as Fables of the Reconstruction and Monster without any need to justify the previous slant to which they composed their music. In that regard, I don’t count the experimentation of Up or Around The Sun as failures like so many other “fans” do, but rather extensions of the band’s creative process.
So then, here’s Collapse Into Now, and a sudden rush of nostalgia washes across such songs as “It Happened Today” with its layered lyrical musings, sweet melody and accompanying mandolin. This could, without a doubt, easily fit into the early 90’s REM canon that so many restless fans have been clambering for; and yet, that’s not why it’s good. The music stands alone. Michael Stipe has always done two extremes particularly well, sheer joyfulness and unabashed sorrow, and this is a soaring, joyful song.
None of the songs here are colossal stand-outs, and the record definitely requires a few listens before the music pops and comes alive, but joined together they make an impressive and cohesive album, another one of R.E.M.’s strengths. Big bangs like “Discoverer” and “Mine Smell Like Honey” play stakes games with the quieter fare of “Uberlin” and “Oh My Heart” and intertwine beautifully.
The record may also seem more familiar to some longtime listeners since the song progressions are so straight forward. The noise and unusual arrangements of R.E.M. past are all but neglected, leaving a predictable, easy-going set of verse-chorus-verse-chorus tunes. There are random bits of playfulness here and there, creative staggered rhythms on “Walk It Back”; bouts of distortion, grunge and beatnik recital on “Blue”; and a tip-of-the-hat to the stomp rock of Accelerate on “All The Best”, but this is still as much an introspective of previous work as it is an indication of what’s to come for the band.
What we must not lose sight of here is the overall quality of Collapse Into Now. There will be those unhappy with it simply because it wasn’t the REM they wanted to hear from, exclusively a reflection upon the sort of fan listening to the record rather than the band who made it. There is some stunningly pretty music here if the listener is willing to inspect and consume rather than react and convulse, and yet another successful entry into R.E.M.’s already legendary body of work.