Monday, March 14, 2011

Though Still Quite Worthwhile For Fans, 'Collapse Into Now' Falls Well Short of Band's R.E.M.arkable Then

Album Review

Collapse Into Now

I believe R.E.M. belong in the very upper echelon of best rock bands ever (as you can see here), with their recorded output having been a greater part of the equation than live performances.

So although the erstwhile Athens, Georgia group's 15th studio album, Collapse Into Now, undoubtedly ranks among the bottom third of their remarkable discography, I highly doubt there will be 10 other albums released in 2011 that I care about, listen to or like as much.

Although there is too much proof to the contrary to argue that R.E.M.'s creative brilliance hasn't subsided sharply--whether causally or coindentally--since drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997, Peter Buck, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills are still putting out high quality music 30 years after the release of their first single, "Radio Free Europe." Not only has R.E.M.'s quantity of new material outdistanced contemporaries like U2, The Cure and Depeche Mode over the last decade, so too has their quality in sum.

And while Collapse Into Now fails to truly compete with R.E.M.'s best albums, I genuinely like it better than The King of Limbs, the latest release from Radiohead (even though I gave both records @@@1/2; see my review of King of Limbs).

So in comparison with nearly everyone but themselves, R.E.M. circa 2011 remain quite worthy of your bandwidth, and there is no reason why longtime fans shouldn't purchase and enjoy Collapse Into Now. Although in harkening to the past, the album seems to echo New Adventures In Hi-Fi (the band's last album with Berry) far more than their truly adventurous early discs--in truth, the latest album by The Decemberists, The King Is Dead, on which Buck plays guitar, sounds more like early R.E.M. than anything here--new songs like "Discoverer," "All The Best," "It Happened Today" (featuring a guest appearance by Eddie Vedder) and especially, "Mine Smell Like Honey," should resonate with the faithful.

But were I asked to put together a 20-song "Best of R.E.M." playlist, only the last song above would even merit consideration, and not necessarily make the cut. This is, of course, a testament to the band's past greatness, but doesn't suggest that the uninitiated start with the latest album nor that those who fell off the R.E.M. bandwagon years ago will hear 'Collapse' as a return to glory (although 2008's Accelerate was the band's best post-Berry release, and though the new one isn't quite as good, it's close).

In listening to not only the new album several times, but many of the ones I love--Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life's Rich Pageant, Document, Out of Time--it seems that what's been left behind is the unbridled sense of "let's try anything." While Stipe's rich vocals always provided a unifying element, even before he began enunciating, there is true stylistic divergence between "Begin The Begin," "Fall On Me," "The Flowers of Guatemala," "What If We Give It Away," "Swan Swan H," and much of what came before or since--and all those songs were all on the same album (1986's Life's Rich Pageant).

While none of the songs on Collapse Into Now are bad, and that's a greater achievement than it may seem, neither do any of them brim with the brilliant originality of "It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," "Losing My Religion," "Man on the Moon," or "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" Given that Mills-sung songs like "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville," "Superman" and "Texarkana" used to shake things up a bit, it's strange that he hasn't contributed lead vocals for several albums.

The college kids of Chronic Town are now graying fifty-somethings, and although Buck/Mills/Stipe remain professionals who take their craft seriously, they seem to have lost some of the playfulness that took their collective (along with Berry) sonic imaginations to levels few others have ever reached.

Of course, despite my long treatise the other day on how songwriting singers  named Paul (but not only) seem to suffer when they leave bands to go solo, maybe the reality is really that even musical geniuses (together or apart) only have a finite amount of sheer ingenuity in them. For whatever combination of factors may be to blame, most rock songwriters' best work has come before the age of 35, even if they remain active far beyond.

With Collapse Into Now, R.E.M. has nothing to apologize for--except perhaps their decision not to tour behind the album--but anyone hoping that Accelerate would push them into a higher gear, one being both R.E.M.iniscent of the past and, not coincidentally, nothing like anything they've ever done before, should just enjoy the 'Now' while R.E.M.aining grateful for all that was "then."

No comments: