After a decade of increasingly underwhelming albums following the departure of drummer/founding member Bill Berry in 1997, R.E.M. forcibly pulled itself out of its creative doldrums with the energetic 2008 release Accelerate. That record was a long-hungered-for revitalization for the veteran alt-rock group by longtime fans and wistful critics, who knew that the boys from Athens, Georgia were capable of far better efforts than they had been turning out lately. Now that the remaining trio of singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills have proven that they still have the faculties to churn out a solid long-player, its Jacknife Lee-produced follow-up Collapse into Now has arrived to help us determine whether R.E.M. can maintain its reinvigorated fire, or if Accelerate was an anomalous blip in the once-brilliant group’s progressive slide into complacent mediocrity.
So has R.E.M. remembered the lessons learned from Accelerate? Well, kind of, if what you actually mean is “does it sound like the last album”. The first thing music fans will notice about Collapse into Now is that it essentially duplicates its predecessor’s vigorous, guitar-dominated approach, with the key differences being that there are more ballads and more famous guest musicians this time around. As on Accelerate, much of the album is inhabited by heady uptempo rockers like “All the Best” and the lead single “Mine Smell Like Honey” that clock in at four minutes or less, where Peter Buck’s crashing guitar chords (the man rarely deploys his once-trademark jangly picking style these days) often make it hard to hear what Mike Mills is playing underneath. Aside from the ultra-brief “That Someone Is You”, none of the Collapse into Now rockers are of the same quality as those on the previous record, instead morphing together into a vaguely-distinguishable mass of power pop-inspired romps. The most disappointing selection from this pack is the opening salvo “Discoverer”, which in its vain attempt to invoke the anthemic this-is-our-moment weight of its Document counterpart “Finest Worksong” instead comes off remarkably like something by the long-forgotten ‘80s modern rockers World Party.
The five ballads found herein are on the whole more successful than the efforts to present listeners with Accelerate, Pt. 2, notably because they are allowed to establish their own identities. The Euro-tinged pair of “Überlin” and “Oh My Heart” are instilled with the spirit of Berlin, one of the album’s three recording locales. Though the now audibly-aged Michael Stipe comes off rather stilted in the verses, he makes up for his deficiencies whenever he ascends to a higher register to deliver each tune’s indelible chorus hook. “Every Day Is Yours to Win” and “Walk It Back” suffer from the same stiffness on Stipe’s part to a smaller degree, so it’s left to “Me, “Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” to claim the title of the album’s loveliest acoustic number.
The only challengers to the rocker/ballad dichotomy are “It Happened Today” and “Blue”, two songs augmented by R.E.M.’s musician pals. “It Happened Today” is a luminous latter-day entry into the ranks of the R.E.M. canon that features Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Joel Gibb of the Hidden Cameras on backing vocals. The album’s standout track, the song never develops a proper chorus, instead building to rousing intersection of wordless harmonies (an art R.E.M. long ago mastered). In comparison, the dirge-like final track “Blue” is a bit of a listening chore for most of its duration as Stipe delivers ponderous rapid-fire spoken word while his hero Patti Smith handles the mournful vocal melodies. Thankfully, the song is redeemed at the end by a surprisingly effective reprise of “Discoverer” that casts aside the gloom of the last couple of minutes.
The most consistently disappointing aspect of Collapse into Now is Stipe’s lyricism. A man once renowned for the beguiling mystery of his words now relies on lots of dumb puns and lazy rhymes that aim to sound more profound than they actually are, be it “I cannot tell a lie / It’s not all cherry pie” or “Dig a hole / Dig it deeper, deeper / Climb a mountain / Climb it steeper, steeper.” Even “It Happened Today” isn’t immune, opening with the lines “This is not a parable / This is a terrible / This is a terrible thing.” Jesus Christ, Michael. Coupled with Stipe’s often creaky, mannered delivery and the album’s fixation on lively rock ‘n’ roll, it’s hard not to imagine the singer performing an awkward middle-aged white guy dance as he sings his lyrics to show he’s still down with the kids.
Listening to the upbeat rockers, the cheeky lyrics, and the gratuitous Patti Smith and Peaches guest-spots, it’s evident that R.E.M. has opted to have some fun with this record. Trouble is, the group has always had difficulty pulling off a playful vibe without embarrassing itself — for every “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, there’s always a misstep like “Shiny Happy People” or “Cant Get There from Here” waiting to be born. Instead of being focused on a goal as Accelerate was, Collapse into Now finds the trio slipping back into bad habits by indulging itself. In between the bright spots, you can hear the band is in danger of becoming complacent again, be it in the Accelerate-soundalikes or in Stipe’s lackluster lyrics. Although Collapse into Now is ultimately an OK rock record, one can point to moments here or on the album before that demonstrate that today’s R.E.M. can achieve better if it buckles down hard enough. Come on, guys, we know you can do it.