Many critics and fans conveniently cleave R.E.M.‘s discography into two separate eras: Quartet and Trio. The band, formed in Athens, Georgia, as a four-piece in 1980, released their first EP in 1982 (Chronic Town) and first full-length album (Murmur) the following year. In 1997, following boatloads of critical and commercial success, R.E.M. lost one member when drummer Bill Berry amicably retired, and the three remaining members (vocalist Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills) continued without him.
For many purists, this was R.E.M.’s death knell. Berry not only occupied the drum stool but also – like the three other members – contributed plenty in terms of songwriting and arranging. R.E.M.’s first post-Berry release, Up (1998), was bolstered by session drumming (in this case, from Joey Waronker) as well as keyboards from Young Fresh Fellows and Minus 5 alum Scott McCaughey and lots of unique experimentation in the form of synthesizers and effects. While the album performed respectably (and included at least one well-loved single, “Daysleeper”), it was a long way from “Radio Free Europe”.
So why did the vinyl reissue pros at Craft Recordings see fit to reissue two of R.E.M.’s late-period albums, Around the Sun (2004) and Collapse Into Now (2011), on vinyl? For one thing, it may just be a matter of completism: Craft has done an exemplary job of reissuing several other R.E.M. albums over the years in lavish boxed set form (Document, Automatic For the People, Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, among others), so why not add the ones that people may not necessarily hold in equally high regard? It may also be a matter of giving potentially misunderstood albums their due and a chance for reassessment. That tactic arguably did wonders for Monster, their 1994 grunge/glam pastiche, which was initially reviled upon release.
Putting these two albums back out into the world, particularly in the now-high-profile vinyl format, is an opportunity to see the records in a new light a dozen or so years after their initial release dates. Around the Sun is often considered the worst album in R.E.M.’s 30-year recording career. Collapse Into Now, the band’s final album, has a slightly better reputation, as many saw it as R.E.M.’s adrenalized last hurrah.
Listeners approaching Around the Sun would do well to put the album in its proper context. It was the third post-Berry R.E.M. record, following the glitchy, techno-leaning Up and its hazier, more psychedelic (but still somewhat experimental) follow-up, Reveal (2001). Around the Sun begins promisingly enough, as the minor-key balladry of “Leaving New York” brings to mind earlier glories. The following track, “Electron Blue”, sees R.E.M. continuing to marry synth squalls with sophisticated songwriting. Right off the bat, it seems like business as usual, particularly regarding their then-current trio format.
What sets Around the Sun apart from the two previous Berry-less albums is that R.E.M. don’t seem to be interested in breaking new ground. There are plenty of bright moments here and there, but overall, it can be a tough listen as nothing in particular stands out. Recruiting Q-Tip to rap the final verse of “The Outsider” seems like a pandering attempt to relive “Radio Song”, the opening track from the 1991’s Out of Time, which featured rapping (albeit in a livelier setting) from KRS-One. While it’s mildly interesting as a genre-melding exercise, it hardly seems revolutionary.
The middle section of Around the Sun seems particularly frustrating as it’s chock-full of ballads and mid-tempo songs that are a textbook example of artistic water-treading, particularly from an arranging standpoint. “Make It All Okay” is one of many missed opportunities. It could have been a typically gorgeous, confessional Stipe showcase (featuring, among other things, some of his usual skeptically delivered religious themes: “Jesus loves me fine / And your words fall flat this time”). Bringing back John Paul Jones, who helmed arrangements for Automatic For the People in 1992, for some stark strings or even imbuing the track with some of the Brian Wilson-isms that made “At My Most Beautiful” (from Up) so sonically rich would’ve greatly uplifted an otherwise bland song.
Likewise, “Final Straw” is a perfectly decent folk-tinted anti-war song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Lifes Rich Pageant, but the edges are dulled this time. Worse, the bouncy shuffle tempo of “Wanderlust” is misleading as R.E.M. sound bored to death. It should be noted that the band members have echoed these sentiments in later years. In a 2008 Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview, Buck admitted that the record “just wasn’t really listenable because it sounds like what it is – a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can’t stand it anymore”. Stipe has defended the songs, but in a 2008 interview with Q magazine, he added, “in the process of recording, we lost our focus as a band”. Around the Sun picks up steam towards the end, with the loping, tuneful “Ascent of Man” bolstered by a strong vocal turn from Stipe and some simmering organ chords from Mills. The title track delivers some majestic, deeply emotional moments that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Out of Time.
R.E.M.’s next album, Accelerate, was released four years after Around the Sun, and they seemed to redeem themselves with a heavier, more rocking sound, courtesy of swaggering rockers like “Supernatural Serious” and “Man Sized Wreath”. It’s a bit like Monster without the glitter and mascara. Three years after that, in 2011, R.E.M. released one more studio album before splitting up. As if buoyed by the new direction of the previous record – and perhaps to go out with a bang – Collapse Into Now is a supercharged, energetic swan song that may not conjure up images of Fables of the Reconstruction. Still, it seemed to check all the boxes that made the less jangly, later-period R.E.M. survive those trio years.
Collapse Into Now begins with “Discoverer”, siren-like guitars and keyboards announcing its arrival with joyful noise. Stipe has referred to the song as one of the few truly autobiographical things he’s written, a celebration of the potential and opportunity provided to him by his adopted city of New York: “Floating across Houston,” he sings, “This is where I am / I see the city rise up tall / The opportunities and possibilities / Oh, I have never felt so called.”
This celebratory nature is all over Collapse Into Now, with the giddy wordplay and caffeinated guitar riffs of “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” and “That Someone Is You” epitomizing the youthful energy of their early college radio years, but with louder amps. The latter song evokes shades of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” with lyrics like “The fury lock of Sharon Stone Casino / Scarface, Al Pacino, ’74 Torino.”
While the ballads on Around the Sun drag it down, the ones on Collapse Into Now retain a palpable edge and tend to recall – whether by design or not, it’s not clear – their earlier years. The utterly gorgeous “Oh My Heart” begins with horn swells before a waltz tempo is complemented with acoustic guitar, mandolin, accordion, and some of Stipe’s most impassioned singing. It’s a shame that the tender, soulful “Walk It Back” isn’t mentioned in the same breath as “Everybody Hurts” or “Strange Currencies”. The piano-led track packs a similar emotional punch, with Stipe in a reflective, middle-aged mood: “Time / Reverse and rewind / Erase and revise / And tried to start again / You / Don’t you turn this around / I have not touched the ground / In I don’t know how long.”
The urgent, acoustic-based “Überlin” is another one of many occasions where R.E.M. dig into their past for inspiration, as the song could have easily been found on a Berry-era album, but the wisdom of their collective years is palpable and welcome here. Even when they crank things up with rockers like the unfortunately titled “Mine Smell Like Honey”, the frenetic pace and plentiful hooks prove R.E.M. could still raise the roof into their 50s. Likewise, the soaring “It Happened Today” has an almost anthemic quality that R.E.M. never quite hit on their previous handful of LPs. On Collapse Into Now‘s final track, “Blue”, R.E.M. collaborate with friend (and early Stipe idol) Patti Smith on a noisy, haunting, dirge-like number before “Discoverer” comes back in for a final coda. As much as their breakup is an amicable, unforced decision, they still find it hard to say goodbye.
Collapse Into Now is well-balanced with both manic energy and stately grace. It’s a tough trick to pull off, but again, the knowledge that R.E.M. were creating their swan song likely resulted in a “go for broke” mentality that resulted in one of their most accomplished and satisfying late-period albums. Around the Sun has its faults as well as several beautiful moments, while Collapse Into Now is an eloquent, fitting closure to a discography any quartet – or trio – would be proud to claim as their own.