Album Review: R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

Following R.E.M.’s 2008 release Accelerate, a comeback album of sorts for the Athens, GA band, the anticipation was very high for their 15th album Collapse Into Now. Accelerate showcased R.E.M.’s return to a real rock sound. The period following drummer Bill Berry’s departure from the band in 1996 saw them move in a new direction, creating more atmospheric music than rock, and for many fans it was a real turn-off. But with Peter Buck’s distorted guitar roaring back to life, along with the return of Mike Mills’ passionate backing vocals, Accelerate vaulted R.E.M. back into the rock arena. Collapse Into Now, however, could be called a disappointment. There are some good songs, some not so good – it’s an inconsistent album, and unfortunately probably seems a little worse than it is because of how great its predecessor was.
The album gets off to a good start with “Discoverer” – it has a cool bass drum beat that tells you the band’s pulse is running smooth, and the chorus is reminiscent of the power chords on Accelerate. “All the Best” follows, another rockin’ track. Then Buck puts the distortion pedal in the closet for a while and switches to an acoustic guitar for “Uberlin.” It’s a mellower tune that features fantastic vocal harmonies from Mills and Michael Stipe, which was great to hear. The haunting “Oh My Heart” is another mellow song, but Stipe’s impassioned gospel-like vocals work quite well. The song’s chords are very similar to Accelerate’s “Houston,” and the lyrics make reference to that song as well: “Houston,” referencing the Bush administration’s handling of natural disasters like Katrina, contains the line “If the storm doesn’t kill me, the government will,” and “Oh My Heart” gives us the update of “The storm didn’t kill me, the government…changed.” I had high hopes for the song “It Happened Today” when I saw that Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam fame) provided vocals on the track. But the song is little more than a hippie-style sing-a-long, with Vedder’s talents being quite under-utilized as he just moans along with Mills’ “la-la-la-la” vocals. The oddly-titled “Mine Smell Like Honey” brings back a more up-tempo beat, but the forcefulness is missing – it feels like watered-down R.E.M. rock, compared to the first two tracks and, as I can’t seem to stop mentioning, the Accelerate album. And then “Walk it Back” slows everything down again. It’s a pretty song, melodic and soft on the ears, but it harkens back to Up and the band’s more “adult contemporary” sound of the late 90’s and early to mid 2000’s. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” is a good song, punctuated by the guest vocals of Peaches, a Canadian oddball rocker of sorts. I had never heard any of Peaches’ music before, but it’s her vocals that make this track so interesting. The song takes on a punk feel as her raw, fervent voice compliments the distorted guitar and quick tempo. “That Someone is You” is another upbeat tune, but clocking in at a mere 1 minute 45 seconds, it never really gets a chance to develop. The album slows down again with “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I,” again taking on the feel of those post-Berry, pre-Accelerate albums. The record closes with “Blue,” another slower tune, but it’s the album’s most texturally interesting track. Stipe’s spoken-word lyrics mesh with Buck’s reverberated guitar while guest vocalist Patti Smith (who also appeared on R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi album) bellows along. And then, inexplicably, the song closes with a brief reprise of the “Discoverer” chorus. If the idea was that the album has come full-circle, there’s nothing to really make that connection, and that reprise just seems out of place.
A couple of other observations – Stipe’s vocals, on every track, have a slight echo to them, like his vocals were recorded in a bathroom or a freeway underpass or something. While this effect works well on tracks like “Oh My Heart” and “Walk it Back,” it detracts from the powerful energy that should be present in the fast-tempo tracks. The other negative aspect of the album is one of the same criticisms the band received during the late 90’s to mid 2000’s – the lack of Mills’ backing vocals. Well-utilized on Accelerate, Mills’ fantastic voice is only recognizable on a couple of tracks, and even then we don’t hear the same passion we’re used to.
So while many of the tunes have a lot of what is good about R.E.M., the album overall is an inconsistent blend of rock and soft rock. Taken as individual songs, most of the album succeeds – but in the context of an entire piece of work, it sounds like the band is falling back on old habits instead of plowing ahead.
Collapse Into Now gets 2.5 out of 5 stars.

2 Responses to “Album Review: R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now”

  1. 1 Jamie Todd Rubin
    March 17, 2011 at 6:03 PM

    I hate to agree with you, but I do.

    When I listened to the album the other day, my reaction was, “Okay, it’a about time the boys to back it in.” I backed away from that a bit. No artist should have to give up what they love doing, but it is clear to me at least that R.E.M. is writing music for themselves and not fans. Or at least not this one.

    Most bands retain a semblance of their original sound over time, despite the evolution of their music, but I didn’t think the tracks in Collapse Into Now sounded anything like the band that produced “Radio Free Europe”. They could be do completely different groups for all I could tell. The sound was still there in Accelerate, but it was gone in this one and that’s a shame.

    • 2 ericstraus
      March 17, 2011 at 6:30 PM

      Why do you hate to agree with me? You should rejoice in agreeing with me! 😉
      It doesn’t bother me if a band writes for themselves and not their fans…bands SHOULD do that, I have no problem it. I don’t think Accelerate was “for the fans” either, it was just a great album. And it also doesn’t bother me that they don’t sound like they did when they released Murmur 28 years ago…bands should evolve. Rush’s last 2 albums don’t sound a thing like Hemispheres, but they’re still awesome. I think it’s great that R.E.M.’s albums are unique – I would have been disappointed as well if Collapse sounded exactly like Accelerate. I was just hoping for a more consistent sound on this new album. Like I said in the review, taken as individual songs, these tracks are pretty good. But as a complete album, it doesn’t work so well.

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