Tuesday, March 8, 2011

REVIEW: R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now

R.E.M., rather than playing it safe or resting on their laurels, are still pushing themselves to make edgy and interesting new music. There's been very few bands that could be said about 30+ years into their career and after they've been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That instinct to keep pushing boundaries hasn’t been the easy road in the latter stages of their career when many fans kept waiting for Murmur 2 while R.E.M. issued experimental and cooly received records like Up and Around The Sun.

Collapse Into Now, their 15th full release, manages to capture many of the elements that have made the band so beloved, without sounding like a throwback or safe journey on familiar ground. While the R.E.M. signature is stamped clearly on this effort -- pop melodies, big choruses, mysterious content, Michael Stipe’s distinctive vocals backed with prominent harmonies from Mike Mills, and Peter Buck’s chiming, infectious, signature guitar lines – the songs are so strong and varied that it sounds like they have something to prove. This is an experienced bunch that knows exactly what they are doing, and Collapse Into Now is a sophisticated effort, representing a great band furthering a significant legacy.

It being a varied collection of songs, more than some of the recent R.E.M. records that made more of a thematic or sonic single statement, we'll review them one by one in order. Since John and I bonded more than decade ago in no small part due to our mutual love of R.E.M.’s music, we thought it would be fitting and fun to celebrate our collaboration on John’s blog by each writing a little bit on each song. (Jim Desmond).

Trailer for making of the record here:

“Discoverer” –

JD: R.E.M. is generally thought of as a pop band, but they have written some great rock anthems like “Finest Worksong”, “Orange Crush” and “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?". Add “Discoverer” to the list. This picks up where R.E.M.’s last record, the hard driving Accelerate, left off. Except that this song is as good or better than anything on Accelerate. And “discoverer” is a terrific word, evocative in meaning and appealing in sound. “Discoverer” is a reminder of what a unique and effective lyricist Michael Stipe is. Who can't relate to this line: "Just the slightest bit of finesse, might have made a little less mess." A great opening track.

John: Yes, this is better than anything on Accelerate, and it certainly brings to mind those earlier songs that you mention. Their glam tendencies are well-represented on this disc, this being the first and probably best example.

“All the Best” –

JD: What a one two punch out of the box! This song is pure rock’n’roll, a joyride. Love Stipe’s staccato vocal and the driving guitars of Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey (longtime collaborator and de facto 5th member). One of the best rock songs of their career. Simply wow.

John: To me, this song assumes a spot very high on the list of favorite R.E.M. songs, and I've only heard it three times! I think it's wonderful, and a terrific counterpoint to some of the more, uh, serious material on here...

“ÜBerlin” –

JD: The record was partially recorded in Berlin, a city with a rich art and rock’n’roll recording history (Iggy Pop, Bowie, U2 etc.). This inspired mid-tempo song follows the 2 kickass rocker openers and changes things up perfectly, signaling a bold record not afraid to take some sharp turns. Beautiful acoustic guitar with strong electric bass lines, gorgeous melody, mysterious content. Then Buck throws his own curve with a noisy electric guitar bridge near the end. This one has grown on me tremendously since I first heard it, simply a terrific R.E.M. song.

John: To me, songs like this, where the acoustic guitar dominates but is embellished by rock instrumentation, have been highlights of R.E.M. records since "We Walk" on Murmur and "Seven Chinese Brothers" on Reckoning: is it a ballad, a rock song, are they channeling Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed or Jimmy Webb? Answer is "yes".

Watch Video for Überlin

“Oh My Heart” –

JD: This song continues the subtle travelogue feel of this record. When we first met the protagonist of this song in its prequel “Houston” on Accelerate, she had been evacuated from her New Orleans home and relocated to Houston. Now she has come back to New Orleans, as has R.E.M. who also recorded much of this record in the Crescent City where they have worked before. “I came home to a city half erased.” A heartfelt, beautiful and tender song with a New Orleans feel to it (accordian etc.). It conveys a strong sense of place and captures the gravitational pull of home. “This place is the beat of my heart.”

John: This song would not be the least bit out of place on Automatic For the People, and I mean that as a compliment... a very evocative and personal ballad that will elicit a reaction from everyone who hears it.

“It Happened Today” –

JD: R.E.M. has a knack for occasionally capturing lightning in a bottle, coming in from left field and taking a risk that pays off big time (“End of the World”, “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”). This song stops all lyrics half way through to repeat a huge vocal chorus chant (Stipe, Mills, guest Eddie Vedder and perhaps others) that builds, soars and knocks you out - a hymn, R.E.M.-style, irresistible and moving. It has a vaguely New Orleans marching band funeral march feel, with great drums lines by Bill Rieflin. It’s not clear what’s happening here. The lyrics are first person and the 2nd line tells us “This is a terrible thing.” Soon after, a death is perhaps suggested: “I have earned my wings.” Terminal illness, sudden death, suicide? In any event, the life in question is honored, celebrated with joyous feeling. Fantastically well executed and deeply affecting. And wow does this sound great played loud in a car.

John: I don't get the sense that a death is suggested, but I'm just going on the overall feel of the song, which takes me back to some of my favorite R.E.M. songs throughout the years, in which you nearly overdose on gorgeous guitar lines and vocal harmonies. I almost see "earned my wings" as a reference to It's a Wonderful Life... so maybe it's an "almost death" that happened today. Either way, there's a celebratory feel to the song for sure...

See a film made for "It Happened Today" at NY Times Website

“Everyday Is Yours To Win” -

JD: This record is smartly sequenced. That huge harmonic crescendo of “It Happened Today” leaves you exhilarated but emotionally spent, and thus a tough act to follow. They slow it way down with this almost lullaby. A fine composition, a bit reminiscent of “Everybody Hurts”, and a nice change of pace to the rockers and pop songs with huge harmonies that dominate this record.

John: This has a real nice intro, reminiscent of VU songs like "Candy Says", but of course R.E.M. makes it their own with Stipe's vocals and trademark lyrical passages... just the way he sings "the road ahead of you" overcomes all the disclaimers throughout the song (the sardonic "if you buy that I've got a bridge for you" and "with the war and the wounds and the subterfuge") and leaves you with a sense that, yes, every day is yours to win. There's a real artistry to the way Michael Stipe sings and this song is a perfect example. Nice fuzzy guitar break about halfway through, too, with, of course, some pretty harmony vocals.

“Mine Smell Like Honey” –

JD: This song has every element I ever loved about R.E.M. -- fast and furious pace, killer chorus, Michael Stipe's voice, Mike Mills’ harmonies, Peter Buck’s distinctive guitar stylings. As an early reviewer once famously said about one of their first live tours: “like the Ramones pistol-whipping the Byrds.” Count me in for more of that. But I’m held back here (perhaps a sign of middle age fuddyduddyism?), finding “Mine smell like honey” to be anything but the lyrical hook that a great pop song demands. I’m not requiring anything profound mind you, just appealing, say for example: “Do you believe in magic?; California dreaming on such a winter’s day; If you believe they put a man on the moon; Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?” This might have been one of my favorites on this record had they just gone with something like “Mine fly like airplane” or “Mine sound like Buzzcocks.” I want to hear Michael sing this one in Italian so I can quit my stupid bitching and just go with it.

John: Well, I have no idea what he's singing about, but this song does sound great and I can see myself driving along singing made-up lyrics, just like I did way back when... "Dig a hole, dig it deeper and deeper", does that not remind you of "Jefferson I think we're lost"? Just one of those soaring choruses you can sing over and over while Mills and Buck seamlessly carry you home?

“Walk It Back” –

JD: Have we stated what a great singer Michael Stipe is? His voice is showing signs of age, but it is taking on more gravitas and character. Exhibit A: this mid-tempo, amazingly well sung song. An emotional dive into regret, reflection and forgiveness, with a perfect melody. I love everything about this song and keep hitting the repeat button every time it comes on. I could listen to this vocal all day long. And there's a really cool, high note, short vocal and keyboard harmony that sneaks in there too. An instant R.E.M. classic.

John: Very pretty song, certainly because of the vocals but also in no small part due to the keyboards. R.E.M. have always been good at using piano well, not overdoing it... and sometimes putting the piano right on the beat, even in a ballad like this.

“Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” –

JD: Damn, does this one rock. Iggy Pop meets the B-52s. Great guest vocal by Canadian extreme artist Peaches who hits it out of the park. And what a guitar sound – Peter Buck is on fire, joined by Lenny Kaye whose crazed psychedelic guitar flourishes take this track over the top.

John: I will echo what you said earlier and applaud R.E.M.'s sequencing on this record... we kind of needed a rocker at this point, didn't we? Of course, Iggy did once record with Kate [I stand corrected], so you've got a point of reference. Mashed potato, alligator, just having a little fun and throwing a little psychedelic dance music out there, right?

“That Someone is You” –

JD: Another fast rocker, flirty and fun. I love the idea of R.E.M. updating and channeling the Ramones and Buzzcocks. I'm always all in when they go big on the Mike Mills harmonies. And how can you not love a song that includes this rhyme: “Sharon Stone Casino, Scarface Al Pacino, ‘74 Torino.” Cue the go go dancers! But why is this song just a minute and a half long? I feel cheated.

John: Of course, if you're channeling those two acts, you'd get past 1:44 and say "What the heck are we doing? This song is OVER!" And they did. I love the transition within the chorus and have always loved the way Stipe and Mills sing together.

“Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” –

JD: Mandolin, keyboards, a bit meditative, mysterious. I can tell this one is going to grow on me. Much less obvious than most of this record, and a solid song.

John: This is a real pretty song with a nice country-rock feel, not so much in the mandolin (which is beautiful) but something else. Maybe a little bit of reverb on the acoustic guitar? Honestly, it reminds me a bit of "Wichita Lineman" and again, I mean that as an extreme compliment.

“Blue” –

JD: I hate to end on a negative note, but this is the only song here that doesn’t work for me. It is so different and striking though that I suspect many people will disagree with me. Stipe delivers a rapid pace spoken word vocal through something that sounds like a megaphone with Patti Smith prominently helping out. The guitars are noisy, the sound discordant. It sounds a bit like “Country Feedback” which I like, and "E-Bow the Letter”, which I don’t (inexplicable since I like Patti Smith a lot). The album then closes with a cool brief reprise outro from “Discoverer” (listen closely and you can hear Eddie Vedder singing). In my perfect world, say I were the, er, man on the moon or king of birds, I'd have saved "Blue" for a later B side and ended the record with a 4 or 5 minute version of "That Someone is You". But this is a quibble in the grand scheme of a very special record from R.E.M.

John: I swear, this didn't start out as "point/counterpoint" because JD and I agree on much more than we disagree on, but this song works for me. Maybe I'm a little more willing to follow on this strange tangent because I'm so happy with the fact that R.E.M. has just given us an album with 11 great new songs... if they want to take us out with a bit of Stipe/Patti Smith NYC street art, I'm going along. Nice of them to reward us with the outro, yes.

Parting thought: R.E.M. have made an old school record album in the sense of a full collection of great songs that hang together as a whole that adds up to even more than the sum of its parts. So longtime fans should do an old school thing and get to their favorite record store this week and buy this CD (Grimey's in Nashville for John, and Music Millennium in Portland for JD)... or find a CIMS or AIMS store near you.

Website: R.E.M. HQ


Anonymous said...

you guys are kidding, right? I love REM but 'Collapse Into Now' is easily their weakest LP, it makes 'Around The Sun' look like 'Reckoning' ferchrissakes! unimaginative, boring and bereft of ideas. plus the lyrics are atrocious. good day to you.

John Hyland said...

Not kidding, if I didn't like it I wouldn't have written about it. Of course you're welcome to your opinion and maybe we're in a minority of people who will like it and everyone else will agree with you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Iggy recorded with Kate, not Cindy.

John Hyland said...

That one got by my fact checking cuz. Thank you for your vigilance, friend.

Anonymous said...

I think the truth lies between your review and the first comment. i like it a little better than when i first heard it, but your superlatives seem like grade inflation. think about how consistently great the first 7 or 8 albums were, how fresh Chronic Town and Murmur were. If this is so "great" and among the "best", what were those? (not that everything since then doesn't measure up: i love Monster and think much of Accelerate is terribly underappreciated) i think the main problem is the songs, the foundation, aren't good enough--they sound sort of underwritten. Discoverer almost gets there until the promising structure falls apart on the repetition of that awkward title word, as if no one wanted to take the time to come up with something melodically interesting at the climax. just compare the fullness of Man-sized Wreath or Supernatural. for me, the songs are key. the playing is real pretty and I like Stipe's older voice, but this is the band that gave us Gardening at Night, Fall on Me, Man on the Moon--those are great songs, so Discoverer (and the rest of the songs on this disc) can't quite get there. i'll keep listening--i find myself liking a couple i initially didn't--especially Walk It Back--but it's clearly not among their best work and it seems disrespectful to that work to say so

Anonymous said...

a couple other notes--

love the shout-out to Young Marble Giants, a band Barney Jones turned me onto 30 years ago and which, after not thinking about for years, i rediscovered last year with a nicely packaged CD collection

my 14 and 12 year old sons can't stop snickering and laughing whenever they hear Mine Smell Like Honey--they've narrowed it down to farts or balls for some reason

Same anonymous as above

John Hyland said...


Thanks for your thoughts, we really appreciate you taking the time to share them with us and our readers. Of course it is possible we're engaging in grade inflation, but I don't think I said it was one of their best ever. I agree that is a VERY high bar. I did use the word "great", which I usually try not to use. Perhaps that's what put you off...

Anyway, thanks very much and come by (and comment) anytime.

Jim Desmond said...

I agree with John, and never meant to say this record is as strong as say Document.
No band should have to compete with anyone even themselves. Creative work is simply what it is, accepted on its own terms.
I like most of these songs, especially Uberlin, Walk It Back and It Happened Today, which I like a great deal. But whether I like those better than say Fall on Me or End of the World (or Like A Rolling Stone for that matter) isn't important. We are not going for Olympic world records here.
I enjoy listening to Collapse Into Now a lot and am happy the band is still making music that moves me at this stage of their career, as hardly anyone in the 4th decade of their recording career does. In that way, for me it is a return to form. As good or better than anything they ever done? No. But that's not the frame I would ever use.
Thanks for reading our blog and please keep it up.