Given the rather dubious quality of R.E.M.’s recorded output over the past decade and a half, Collapse Into Now—the title of the alt-rock lifers’ 15th studio disc—doesn’t inspire a great deal of hope. Collapse Into Then? Promising. Collapse Into Yesterday? Even better. Collapse Into the Five-Year Period Beginning with Murmur and Ending with Green? Shit, I might buy a T-shirt.
Then again, that last record’s already been released this year, hasn’t it? With its jangly indie-roots arrangements and oblique lit-major poetics—not to mention several appearances by guitarist Peter Buck himself—the Decemberists’ The King Is Dead neatly reconstructed R.E.M.’s fabled era for kids whose idea of an alt-rock lifer is Conor Oberst. (In a measure of its youth-market appeal, King debuted atop the Billboard 200, a feat no R.E.M. album has pulled off since Monster, and which Collapse Into Now is unlikely to repeat next week against a new Glee set and the latest from Avril Lavigne.)
So you can understand the band’s commitment to the present here: Wisdom and experience are more or less what R.E.M. have to offer at this point, and though 2008’s fast-and-loud Accelerate mustered a sense of propulsion they’d been lacking for years, it also carried a whiff of desperate self-denial. I harbor zero desire for another trip Around the Sun, but R.E.M. in cred-restoring apology mode seems like no less of a bummer to me—especially when it means we have to listen to Michael Stipe wonder, as he did in Accelerate‘s “I’m Gonna DJ,” “If heaven does exist with a kickin’ playlist.”
Collapse Into Now contains a handful of revved-up rockers, including opener “Discoverer” and “Mine Smell Like Honey,” the latter of which might be the crunchiest R.E.M. single since “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” even features a left-field cameo from Peaches, who contributes demented-cheerleader backing vocals over Lenny Kaye’s guest guitar jabs. Yet those cuts are surrounded by more contemplative numbers like “Überlin,” a mandolin-equipped acoustic jam à la “Drive,” and “Oh My Heart,” a lovely meditation on post-Katrina New Orleans with horns by that city’s Bonerama. (There’s a band name without which no kickin’ playlist is complete.) Taking advantage of a much broader sonic palette than the one he utilized on Accelerate, Buck unravels some gorgeous chamber-psych arpeggios in “Every Day Is Yours to Win” and fills “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” with the kind of open-space twang he perfected on New Adventures in Hi-Fi. When Eddie Vedder shows up and does his compassionate-caveman thing on “It Happened Today,” you can hear the presence of an avowed R.E.M. heir driving Buck and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills to strum harder.
That refreshed energy is what distinguishes Collapse Into Now from Reveal and Around the Sun. But what makes this record better than Accelerate is the feeling that R.E.M. have figured out how to be R.E.M. again—how to affect the signature balance of folky and punky that’s inspired bands far less worshipful than Pearl Jam or the Decemberists. Mission nearly accomplished, they do wash out into sound-hound tedium in closer “Blue,” which not even Patti Smith can save from Stipe’s sub-Beat spoken-word nonsense. When it’s over, though, they wisely circle back for a brief coda from “Discoverer,” driving home a message that the rest of Collapse Into Now delivers with understated grace: We went back to Rockville. It was OK. Now let’s go somewhere else.