Collapse Into Now Sampler
It Happened Today
Mine Smell Like Honey
Oh My Heart
"I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog," said Michael Stipe when drummer Bill Berry quit R.E.M. in 1997. True, but a three-legged dog never triumphed at Crufts or the racetrack. Even so, the R.E.M. that recorded 1998's Up (experimental, frequently beautiful), 2001's Reveal (lush, frequently beautiful) only started listing badly on 2004's Around the Sun, where a mystifyingly insipid production and sluggish mood got in the way of frequent bouts of beauty. Stung into action, they tore through 2008's frequently thrilling Accelerate - but can an R.E.M. album ever feel like an event again?
The clock is indeed ticking for the band, this being their 15th album on their 30th anniversary. But Radiohead should be so lucky at this stage. Even if a lyric sheet on a R.E.M. album doesn't feel right, Stipe's words are alluring, enigmatic and provocative, free of rhetoric (the Hurricane Katrina aftermath of Oh My Heart notwithstanding). Unlike Accelerate, Collapse into Now is also free of a planned response to a predecessor. It's as varied and deep as previous R.E.M. classics. It's not epochal like Automatic for the People, but it can't be. These are different times.
On that basis, the album kicks off like Accelerate Part Two, with Discoverer and All the Best incorporating that sinewy and keening R.E.M. rock thrust of old. There are also passages that are, yes, frequently beautiful. All five ballads get the tense, urgent delivery they deserve, and at best, Walk It Back show as they get older, R.E.M. are even better at gravitas, Oh My Heart's accordion/mandolin undertow is an immediate earworm and Every Day Is Yours to Win is the kind of wistful lullaby often reserved for an album finale.
The closing track here is more in line with You from 1994's Monster: Peter Buck's guitar is drenched in fuzz, Country Feedback-style; Stipe's spoken word diatribe and Patti Smith's solemn incantation equally fire; and a surprise coda returns to Discoverer's exuberant chorus. Before then, though, we've heard the first (non-session) guest men on an R.E.M. album. Every Day… features Eddie Vedder and The Hidden Cameras' Joel Gibb on valiant backing vocals and Patti's faithful guitar foil Lenny Kaye transforms Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter into something that's virtually hard rock (Peaches adds lascivious vocal back-ups). Fun, maybe, but also overblown. Consider it the album's only misjudgement. Fortunately, That Someone Is You follows in a more dutifully golden, Byrds-ian rush.
Buck reckons no R.E.M. album in 20 years has 12 songs as good as this. 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi may have something to say about that, but Collapse into Now genuinely feels like their first post-Bill Berry album to resemble a four-legged dog. And that, folks, is an event.