R.E.M.’s 14th album Accelerate (2008) was a hard-charging return to mid-’90s form, and right from the get-go too, with its loud electric guitar-propelled first few cuts recalling the Monster record. It also had a small share of gentle tunes as well.
The theme continues for album number 15, Collapse Into Now (2011). But, this one has some new wrinkles. Like its last release, Jacknife Lee worked with Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills on production, and once again, R.E.M. brought the loud rock to the masses, along with some folkier cuts to balance out the mood of the full-length. But spacey and experimental arrangements, and the old, reliable mandolin can be found on the new album too, which help differentiate it from Accelerate.
Stipe’s hero, Patti Smith, who shared vocals duty with him on the 1996 single “E-Bow The Letter,” returns to do guest backing vocals on lead-off track “Discoverer” and on album closer “Blue.” The sludgy, vocally (by Stipe) rambling latter track actually ends with a reprise of “Discoverer” to close out Collapse Into Now. Perhaps the band did that so everyone can leave the listening experience feeling good about themselves, like a good movie ending with a feel-good scene, instead of an abrupt or strange one (which, in this analogy, “Blue” would have been for this album if not for the reprise of the top-notch first track).
In between the first and last tracks are plenty of other notable recordings. “Mine Smell Like Honey” is a pure, classic verse-chorus-verse rocker, backed always by bassist Mike Mills’ high-end background vocals. The echoed vocals that support the clean acoustic-driven “Uberlin” recall “Drive,” while the piano-led and personal “Walk It Back” has the type of simple, memorable chorus that just sticks with you long after the song is over.
The twinkling musical elements and delicate guitars of the forward-thinking and spacey “Every Day Is Yours To WIn” is another winner. It’s not quite as classic as “Man On The Moon” but sounds like vintage R.E.M. nonetheless.
“Oh My Heart” is full band folk music (much like Accelerate’s “Houston” and “Until The Day Is Done”) but with a horn section and an accordion, the latter courtesy of longtime R.E.M. collaborator Scott McCaughey (of The Minus Five, The Baseball Project, etc.). He also plays guitars, the keys, and sings background vocals on the album. The track itself is bitter and sweet, with Stipe’s dark, Hurricane Katrina-referencing lyrics like “The storm didn’t kill me/the government changed” representing the former, and Buck’s signature mandolin and the aforementioned other elements providing the latter.
Joel Gibb of the Hidden Cameras and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder contribute vocals to the okay and sunny tune “It Happened Today.” I say “okay” because the track tries to be uplifting but comes off as generic (or “been there, done that” to be blunt) when it comes to the refrain, with strings and a chorus of “ohs” during its way too familiar three-chord progression (of G major, D major and A major, for all you music theory junkies). The band previously did something similar (vocally) with its chorus of “ohs” on the jangly Out of Time tune “Belong,” but that song was a heck of a lot catchier to the ears.
Patti Smith’s longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye plays guitar on “Blue,” and does the (short) guitar solo on “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter.” The artist known as Peaches contributes vocals on “Alligator…” as well, which in its power-chord-led glory and post-punk feel would be a highlight on a release like this, if it came out 25 years ago. But the even more punk-ish and less than two-minute-long next track, “That Someone Is You” is an album highlight. Much like Accelerate’s “Horse To Water,” it is stunning (and pleasant) to hear tracks that aggressive and cool at this stage in this band’s career.
The bottom line: The Athens, Georgia alternative rock and roll greats are 30 years into its career and still putting out worthy new music. Therefore, without hesitation, you should go out and grab a copy of Collapse Into Now and listen to it in your mp3 player alongside Accelerate and Monster. You’ll be so glad you did.
For more info on these living all-American rock and roll legends, go to their official REM HQ site.
The band is making videos for all 12 tracks, with different directors being hired for each one. To view the latest one for “Every Day Is Yours To Win,” visit this Stereogum link.