I was four years old when Peter Buck met Michael Stipe while working at the Wuxtry record store in Athens, Georgia in 1980. I’m now 35, married, and have two kids of my own. Peter Buck and Michael Stipe are still part of the band they would create with Bill Berry and Mike Mills not long after meeting and that band is called R.E.M. The college rock icons, who reached their commercial peak in the mid-nineties, just released their fifteenth studio album entitled COLLAPSE INTO NOW.
At this point I would like to take just a moment to pause and thank whoever it was that hired Peter Buck to work at Wuxtry records. Thank you. Because of you (whoever you are) two of the four critical pieces were put into place to meet and begin a creative journey that has progressed for thirty one years and is still putting out beautiful, grand, and gripping music. While many artists fade into oblivion, R.E.M. is putting out some of its better work in its thirty-first year as a band. It is an album that flexes the characteristics that have made R.E.M. the icon of a band that they are, but, in a manner that steers well clear of merely being a reprise of their past work.
COLLAPSE INTO NOW opens with “Discoverer” which wields guitar and drums without shame and in a manner that seems even more explicit than their rock revival, 2008’s ACCELERATE. It is a testosterone-tweaking song with a driving arrangement that hits hard from beginning to end both musically and lyrically with perfectly placed and timed lines like, “…I rang the church bell ‘til my ears bled red blood cells…” I can’t put my finger right on it, but, for some reason that line is extremely impressive to me. Maybe its the way it is sung or maybe its the clever cluster of rhyme and alliteration. But, it is a fantastic line in a killer song.
The next four tracks together create a golden stretch of songs that are as compelling as they are beautiful. “Überlin” seems like it could have been at home on AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE or perhaps REVEAL, but, fits perfectly, here in 2011 on their newest album as a tribute to the city of Berlin where a good portion of COLLAPSE INTO NOW was recorded. “Überlin,” at least, rivals the integrity and character of the R.E.M. that many fans have loved them for over the past three decades. But, where “Überlin” provides a fresh spin on the classic R.E.M. sound, “Oh My Heart,” creates a fresh and altogether reverential and somewhat celebratory new and fully realized composition that should be counted among the best in the trail left by the Athens, Georgia band through the fields of rock music history. Scott McCaughey’s accordion and Peter Buck’s mandolin provide the perfectly flavorful background for the slightly discordant dance between Michael Stipe’s lead vocal and the backing rounds of “Oh my heart…” in a manner that tactfully, sincerely, and respectfully celebrates the journey and the victory that is the city of New Orleans.
“It Happened Today,” and “Everyday Is Yours To Win” complete an altogether strong side A to COLLAPSE INTO NOW. “It Happened Today” strikes a very comfortable chord by appealing to my high school/college years preferences with a celebratory and anthemic demeanor that is ever so delicately and blissfully enhanced by the vocal chords of one Mr. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. “Everyday Is Yours To Win,” conjures up instant relativity to AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE with lines that make references to ticking clocks, rock and roll, bridges, and coming to peace with one’s lot. It could just be me. Regardless, the song soars with the middle bridge which features the golden background vocals of Mr. Mike Mills. Its a keeper, for sure.
“Mine Smells Like Honey,” while a decent song and all, is probably the one that I could survive without. You see, I’ve got kids and, even if they don’t have any idea (at 3 and 7) what the songs lyrics are referring to, I can’t bring myself to play it in the car (the others I have no problem with) for them to learn and sing along with. So, I automatically (darn! – another AUTOMATIC reference!) hit skip when its on unless I’m alone. But, when I’m alone….well, “mine smell like honey.”
“Walk It Back,” is a simple song in which Stipe taps a more soulful pool than that which has been heard in the past. It reaches its height when Mills can be heard contributing background vocals in the latter part of the track.
“Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” very much comes out of the box much like “All The Best,”: a raucous, testosterone laced rocker that flaunts the irony of the song’s aggressive musical arrangement by juxtaposing with it an alternately flexing and reflective lyrics that cling true to where R.E.M. is now in 2011: an icon of a band that has experienced it all and is better for having done so.
“That Someone Is You” may be my favorite song on the album. It is a quick-tempo nod to their intertwining pop-punk influences that, true to form, measures in well under two minutes. There is no song that I revel in more when nobody is looking – and sometimes when they are.
Certainly, one of the more subdued tracks on the album is “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I.” Stipe’s delicate lyrics, in combination with the vulnerable and sincere-sounding vocals, rest on an acoustic, ambient bed of sound that, again, while maintaining a sense of personal reflection, are enhanced by gentle background vocals subtly placed by Mike Mills at just the right time in the latter part of the arrangement. The song creates an environment for the listener similar to that which was featured throughout R.E.M.’s vastly underrated 2001 album REVEAL: a gentle place and time where reflection is allowed, encouraged, and where the listener can be at ease.
Finally, the album closes with “Blue.” Patti Smith, longtime influence and friend of the band, provides her characteristically beautiful and haunting voice to a song that features a rapid stream of consciousness monologue delivered, albeit through distortion, by Michael Stipe. The song and the lyrics (at least those that are clearly decipherable) present a fitting and victorious end to R.E.M.’s fifteenth studio album before reprising the sounds of the opening track, “Discoverer,” in a manner that is fitting both poetically and sonically.
Altogether, very few bands survive long enough to put out fifteen studio albums. Even fewer do so in the manner and with the integrity that R.E.M. has over the past thirty years. COLLAPSE INTO NOW stands tall, not only in comparison to R.E.M.’s own catalog of studio albums, but, in comparison to the rest of the music world as it is in 2011. The band made good on what Stipe set out to do in “All The Best”: “…let’s show the kids how to do it, fine fine, fine fine.” Indeed. A fine record.
COLLAPSE INT NOW:
“Discoverer” – 3:31
“All the Best” – 2:48
“Überlin” – 4:15
“Oh My Heart” – 3:21
“It Happened Today” – 3:49
“Every Day Is Yours to Win” – 3:26
“Mine Smell Like Honey” – 3:13
“Walk It Back” – 3:24
“Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” – 2:45
“That Someone Is You” – 1:44
“Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” – 3:03
“Blue” – 5:46