Thursday, 10 March 2011

R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now (Album Review 2011)

There was a time when the names Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe rang out through hallowed halls and sacred spaces as legendary musical bastions with god-like gifts for composition and song writing. But the last decade has not been kind to R.E.M. It would be too easy to say that the so-called demise of the band coincided with the departure of Bill Berry. This led Michael Stipe to utter his most infamous phrase: ‘A three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently’. Much of this depressive response (rightfully so) came from the band, then to be fuelled by the venomous press. The conclusion is that Berry is to blame. Not to underestimate his contributions, which were substantial, of course, he is not. In 1995 the band had its most difficult year both commercially and personally. Monster, released a year earlier is an ill-fated attempt to inject energy into a band coming down from the euphoria of their most successful period musically. The result is the worst R.E.M. album in a long and lustrous career. In comparison, the follow-up New Adventures In Hi-Fi is a triumph – dark, moody, textured and tuneful. Everything since has failed to keep up. The signs have been there with gems littering Reveal, Around The Sun and then Accelerate and you could easily create one great record from the three. But the consistency, the focus and the energy have not combined successfully for what seems like a very long time. Thankfully, album number fifteen Collapse Into Now is the studio album R.E.M. have been building up to for a decade.

At the centre of Collapse Into Now are the best seven consecutive songs on any R.E.M. album. Only Green gets close to this (the eight-song odyssey Pop Song 89 to Turn You Inside-Out). After an unassuming start, Überlin starts this run. Stipe begins with the tale of 9-5 drudgery as Buck’s gorgeous guitar work provides the melody. Quickly into the chorus of hope and optimistic yearnings, and as the song takes shape, Mills adds excellent backing vocals. A quick mid-section, devoid of a guitar solo, and more of the same brings the song to a close. ‘The kids have a new take. A new take on faith’, Stipe croons in the opening of Oh My Heart, the best song R.E.M. have written in their last five albums. Overtly political folk and referencing recent catastrophic US events: ‘I came home to a city half erased… I came home to face what we faced…’ – this is a hard-hitting and wonderful three-minutes, the powerful vocal-driven chorus at its core. This is the best Stipe has sounded in a decade, coupled with Peter Buck who was born to play the mandolin; a perfect balance of earnest dark memories and uplifting spiritualism.

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder provides backing vocals on the magnificent It Happened Today. ‘This is not a parable, this is a terrible’ is not Stipe’s finest hour lyrically but musically it echoes one of R.E.M’s forgotten masterpieces, Try Not To Breathe. Taking a minute and a half for the wordlessness to begin as a soaring choir of voices, guitars, trumpet and sousaphone. Vedder has the final non-word in a stirring finale. R.E.M. owes much to Eels for the melody and vocal production of the beautiful Every Day Is Yours To Win. ‘I cannot tell a lie, it’s not all cherry-pie… but it’s all there waiting for you’ following up with cynical ‘If you buy that… I’ve got a bridge for you’. Superb song writing and more great vocals from Mills. Then an echo of early exuberance with the brilliant punk-pop of Mine Smell Like Honey which could easily be an out-take from Life’s Rich Pageant. Stipe again delivers a driving chorus. Another change of pace brings in the piano-led Walk It Back and another arrangement to take your breath away. Stipe is (again) magnificent. And completing the impressive septet is the absurdly catchy and inane Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter, another torrent of guitars and guest vocalist Peaches injecting her unique character.

The delicious centre aside, Collapse Into Now has its ‘moments’, opening strongly with the rambling, shambolic, anthemic Discoverer only to reverse the momentum with the stretched All The Best. That Someone Is You is the only obvious weak point – the band deliver a very bad impression of Fountains Of Wayne for, thankfully, just under two minutes. Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I is a pleasant wistful ballad before the astonishingly ‘prog’ Blue, fusing the guitars of Country Feedback with the vocals of Belong (and Stipe providing some of his best lyrics in a very long time) to again merge with the wonderful Patti Smith before going full-circle back into an alternative opening of Discoverer. Ambitious to the extreme but like Coldplay’s Life In Technicolor becoming the monstrous vocalised ‘single’, the outro is a step too far.

Collapse Into Now was never going to be that new perfect R.E.M. album. And even though it would be naïve to elevate the album to the echelons of the early 1990s, when the band seemed untouchable, you cannot ignore and dismiss this on the basis of misty-eyed overreaction. It’s been a while since R.E.M. sounded this energised, this youthful, this interesting, this relevant, and this good. With Collapse Into Now, they have pulled together past experience, the iconic sounds that filled Green, Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, and the spirit of adventure and exuberance that got them into a fourth decade. At last it looks as if R.E.M. has learned to run differently.

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