A new album from R.E.M., arguably the most influential American band of the last 30 years, is cause to celebrate. Most bands, after they reach induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, are likely on the downhill side of their career. However, with their new album this Athens, GA based band have released their tightest, most cohesive album since Monster (or at least New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the last containing original drummer Bill Berry).
Released today, Collapse Into Now, comes three years since their last studio foray, Accelerate, in which they turned up Peter Buck's guitar and went back to a full on rock sound last found on Monster (1994). The band's 15th studio album and their last under their current Warner Bros. contract includes guests Joel Gibb, Lenny Kaye, Peaches, Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder.
R.E.M.'s new album combines all the different elements that have been incorporated into their albums since Green (1988) when R.E.M. made the jump from original label I.R.S. to Warner Bros. Records. Acoustic based folk songs or ballads sequenced between upbeat rockers with a dip of the toe into the electronica sound the band started displaying for their 1998 album Up. With the exception of a the final track on the album, these are concise 3 minute rock songs that made their records great through most of their career. The album drips with backing vocals by bassist Mike Mills, another hallmark that made much of their early work stand out, set alongside strong music from both Buck and Mills referring to their earlier work with a slight updated sound. This record deserves attention from anyone who has enjoyed the work of the band in the past.
A modern rock style distorted guitar riff opens the album as the lead track "Discoverer" begins. Reminiscent of the thin guitar sound created for Monster or New Adventures In Hi-Fi the 3 1/2 minute song becomes a perfect vehicle to pull older fans of the band back into the fray. The thundering drums of Bill Rieflin and bass of Mike Mills balance out the guitars and build with Stipe's vocal acting like a rallying cry that the band is back.
Stipe seems he's making commentary on the modern condition in regards to society's fast paced lifestyle on "Überlin." One of the acoustic based tracks here, this mid tempo number mixes R.E.M's classic and modern sounds beautifully. Mills adds a great harmony part behind Stipe's lead vocal in both the verses and chorus on the track. Buck picks out the melody in a variation of his famous arpeggio guitar style and even plays a guitar "solo" of sorts -- something he's always shied away from in most of the band's work.
On "Oh My Heart", a contender for strongest track here, Stipe sings over an acoustic folk based track lamenting the landscape of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina as the music pays homage to the band's sound on their 1992 album Automatic For The People which the band recorded in the city 20 years ago. Stipe sings (nearly talking) in his lower register "I came home to a city half erased/I came home to face what we faced/This place needs me here to start/This place is the beat of my heart."
Continuing in that vein, "It Happened Today" is an upbeat song with Peter Buck strumming on acoustic guitar with multiple layers of guitars, mandolin and other string instruments. By the middle of the song, Stipe and Mills are just singing the melody lines instead of lyrics. On most songs, by any artist, this would not work and seem to the listener like the band ran out of relevant lyrics to add, but actually Stipe references this "This is not a parable/this is a terrible, this is a terrible thing/Yes, I will rhyme that after/after all I've done today I have earned my wings/It happened today, hooray, hooray/It happened hip hip hooray." Though not the most poetic lyrics, the song keeps building to these beautifully layered vocals by Stipe and Mills joined by guests Eddie Vedder and Joel Gibb on vocals -their voices blending perfectly - and eventually adding brassy horns by the end for a great crescendo.
"Every Day Is Yours To Win", the final track on side 1 if you buy the vinyl, is wrapped in the sound R.E.M. has been creating since Bill Berry left the band almost a decade and a half ago. Stipe's vocals drenched in echo and reverb with a light picked guitar line backed by piano. A plodding drumbeat moves the song along as Mills adds more backing vocals.
The album closer "Blue" could just have easily been titled "Country Feedback, Part 2." Stipe uses a similar poetic recitation to convey the lyrics while his longtime hero, Patti Smith, sings over him at points throughout the track. The songs are similar enough to have the same hauntingly slow acoustic guitar strum and the eery effects. The album ends with a reprise of the opening track "Discoverer."
Stipe, Mills and Buck sound just as strong as they have on past records, but the decision to limit the length of the songs (and thereby the overall record) and vary some song tempos has paid off here as each song makes an impact. In their previous four albums (Up, Reveal, Around The Sun and Accelerate) the band stuck so close to one tempo that the album became too cohesive and somewhat redundant.
Whether you have been listening to R.E.M. since the early days in the 1980s, picked up the band during the salad days of the early 1990s, or started listening in the last 10 years or so, this album has elements that draws all of those disparate fans attention. The approach to take the elements back to a more basic level - concise songs, good songwriting and great vocals all wrapped around a strong guitar based feel make for a great record. That's exactly what we need from a great American band.
R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now track listing
2. All The Best
4. Oh My Heart
5. It Happened Today
6. Every Day Is Yours To Win
7. Mine Smell Like Honey
8. Walk It Back
9. Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter
10. That Someone Is You
11. Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I
R.E.M. released videos containing the official lyrics for many of the songs of the album prior to the official release and each video derives its artistic direction from the cover art for the album. For the duration of their career artistic control and license has been an important part of the band in both the music and associated artwork, especially for singer Michael Stipe. In conjunction with other artists, Stipe's instrumental role in much of the photographic and film elements acted as a vehicle to display his artistic vision through media other than music. Here's many of the videos to get a taste of the art and the music R.E.M. have crafted.
The Official Trailer for the album Collapse Into Now:
Short Interviews with Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, and Mike Mills
Oh My Heart
It Happened Today
Mine Smell Like Honey
Mine Smell Like Honey - Live In Studio