Collapse Into Now
Warner Brothers, 2011
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/14/2011
This is the one we’ve been waiting for.
Yes, R.E.M. used to loom so much larger in the American musical consciousness, the college rock juggernaut of the 80s, forefathers of half the alt-/indie-rock bands of the past 20 years… and then they got famous, and then they got experimental, and then they lost Bill Berry, and then they wandered off into the dreamy-electro forest for a bit… but they never lost the core of what made them great in the first place, which is the utterly unique combination of musical sensibilities represented in surrealist poet Michael Stipe, melodic rocker Peter Buck and dynamic multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills. Even in the depths of the aughts, there were flickers and signs that R.E.M. was far from done, that they had another great album in them yet (and maybe more).
Collapse Into Now is that album—a wonderfully-named disc that takes the rocking soul of classic R.E.M., the melodic folk-pop of Out Of Time/Automatic For The People, and the electronic experimentalism of Up-though-Around The Sun, and collapses them into an surprisingly cohesive whole representing what this band sounds and feels like in the present moment.
It sounds damned good.
Collapse begins with a bang as the ringing, anthemic “Discoverer” rockets out of your speakers, hammering and falling back in a wonderfully spacious arrangement that accentuates both the passion of Stipe’s vocals and Bucks’ sinewy lead guitar. “All The Best” is the two in this one-two punch, a full-on attack from the very first beat that’s as ecstatically hard-driving as anything the group has recorded in years.
With “Uberlin” and “Oh My Heart,” the boys dip into Automatic-flavored orchestral folk-pop, executing beautifully as ever, with the added texture of horns on the latter. “It Happened Today” picks up the pace again, offering an airy acoustic opening that gathers and builds steadily, driving towards a magnificent, multilayered crescendo that fades into a dreamy synth wash that you didn’t even realize was lurking underneath.
“Dreamy” also describes the echoey open to “Every Day Is Yours To Win” (Charlie Sheen’s new theme song?), which features Stipe, Buck and bells in a sort of spoken-word vignette rich with atmospherics. In fact, on this track the real star may be the production by Jacknife Lee and the band, full of space and subtle textures.
The old trademark R.E.M. jangle resurfaces with the faintly absurdist “Mine Smell Like Honey” (anyone for an “Orange Crush”?), full of 4/4 drive, intriguing dynamics, and fat background vocals courtesy of Mr. Mills. Here Stipe’s sound-painting wordplay is at the fore again as he urges: “Dig a hole, dig it deeper, deeper / Climb a mountain, climb it steeper, steeper.” “Walk It Back” harks back to “Everybody Hurts” with its unusually direct narrative and simple blues-ballad arrangement, a brief interlude before another of this album’s highlights.
The title declared it was going to be either a blast or a bomb; it’s a blast. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” is a rock and roll poetry slam, a 2:45 piledriver with Stipe and guest Peaches trading vocals, riffing furiously on Stipe’s manic word jumbles while the band throws a raucous party behind them. “That Someone Is You” is the caffeine chaser to “Alligator,” a reeling 1:44 coda. The quixotic song titles continue with “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I,” a searching ballad that actually seems to be about something, for once—the dark side of fame and hero-worship. Buck’s mandolin work is exquisite as always, even if it’s a challenge to notice it without thinking of “Losing My Religion” (sorry Peter… the price of success).
The album closes with “Blue,” a psychedelic collage of sound that includes Stipe speed-riffing his stream-of-consciousness poetry deep in the mix while his idol and sometime muse Patti Smith drones foreground vocals and Buck and Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye drape the sky with thrumming, sitar-like guitar lines. It’s surrealism at its finest, the nexus where rock and roll becomes art. “Blue” then false-ends around 4:05, its final drone drawn out until it revives as the opening sequence of “Discoverer,” completing the cycle and aurally representing the “collapse into now” that is both a line in “Blue” and the album’s title.
Time will tell where Collapse Into Now ends up ranking within the substantial body of work that is the R.E.M. catalogue. But right now, today, it feels like it belongs among their finest, a glorious shout from 30 years into this fabled band’s run: “we’re still here: game on!”