R.E.M.’s “Collapse Into Now”

I went to buy the new R.E.M. CD at Best Buy on Tuesday but when I saw “The Walking Dead” on Blu-Ray and after hearing the first tune called “UBerlin” as a freebie on ITunes, I decided…”Eh…it can wait.” Then I read some reviews and decided I should have gotten it. And so, off I trudged BACK to Best Buy to get it and I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Many reviews of this, their first album in 3 years, have been split. Some are hailing it as a return to form while others are finding it to be a lot of the same. Well…depending on your opinion of R.E.M., they are BOTH correct. “Collapse Into Now” is every bit a return to form AND it is a lot of the same, as long as the same is the late 80’s/early 90’s R.E.M. And THAT is a very good time for them to return to.

It was in that 80’s/90’s time frame where they released “Green” (1987), “Out of Time” (1991) and “Automatic For The People” (1992). As much as I love those 3 albums, I also enjoyed the following 2 albums that really got the band rockin’ with “Monster” (1996) and “New Adventures In Hi Fi” (1996). This new album is like all 5 of these rolled into one disk. And the best part is that it’s all the best parts of all of those albums!

Starting at the beginning, “Discoverer” comes roaring in with lyrics that you’re not gonna hear out of any other more modern bands these days. I have to be honest, a lot of Stipe’s lyrics are more like poetry and I can’t even begin to understand them in their musical form. With its repetitive refrain, this song seems to me to be about a relationship that is maturing over time, but only the author knows the truth behind these words…

That just the slightest bit of finesse
Might have made a little less mess
But it was what it was
Let’s all get on with it now
Discoverer

“All The Best” issues a firing shot at newer bands who are looking to replace this band that has been making amazing music for over 25 years. R.E.M. is the definition of alternative rock and when Stipe sings the following, you know he’s looking for his foothold on the genre itself.

I hold the mirror off
You tell me what is what
You tell me which part of my story baby stuck, stuck, stuck
I’m in a part of your trees
That you don’t even understand
It’s just like my need to overstay my welcome man

Let’s sing it a rhyme
Let’s give it one more time
Let’s show the kids how to do it fine, fine, fine, fine

The above mentioned “UBerlin” is a much better song when heard in context with the rest of the album. Honestly, “Losing My Religion” has never been my favorite R.E.M. song, even though it is one of their most popular and this track reminds me of it. It drips with sentimentality and is one of the mellower songs on the album, but I find it growing on me more with repeated listenings.

Then we start getting into the meat of the album. Like I said, this album is almost a “Greatest Hits” of songs you’ve never heard. “Oh My Heart” is possibly the most beautiful song on here with the return of the mandolin and reminds me of the best tracks on “Out Of Time.”

The kids have a new take
A new take on faith
Pick up the pieces
Get carried away
I came home to 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

Track 5, “It Happened Today”, has Stipe doing some vocal gymnastics that doesn’t involve lyrics at all. Although this is an uplifting track, it’s when he simply starts humming and singing at about 2 minutes into the song that makes this track soar. I can’t but help cranking this one up whenever it comes on. It’s one of those songs that just gives you a sense of hope and is so amazing that you HAVE to turn it up.

“Every Day Is Yours To Win” is an odd little song because at the offset, the lyrics are simple and sort of jangly. But the more I hear it, the more it makes sense. It’s another uplifting song that transcends the lyrics. It’s not my favorite song on the album, but compared to anything else out there, this is amazing stuff…

With the brilliance (brilliance)
and the light (light)
with the sting (sting)
and the hide (hide)
and the road ahead of you.

I cannot tell a lie
It’s not all cherry pie
But it’s all there waiting for you
Yeah you

Possibly my favorite track on the album is “Mine Smell Like Honey.” It soars and rocks and is one of the greatest songs R.E.M. has in their vast library. Honestly, I have no idea what the lyrics mean (which is a typical of Stipe and company) because it’s all very cryptic, however I love the riff and it reminds me of the better parts of “New Adventures In Hi-Fi” which is one of my favorite R.E.M. albums!

I would dare you, but I know I don’t need to
You’re going to do just what you want to
You’re going to take the leavings here at the fairground
You’re going to sing the praises of your fruit

Mine smell like honey, uh!
Mine smell like honey, uh!
Mine smell like hu, hu, hu, hu, honey, uh!

Dig a hole, dig it deeper, deeper!
Climb a mountain, climb it steeper, steeper!
Dig a hole, dig it deeper, deeper!
Track a trail of honey through it all

The next track, “Walk It Back,” has been touted as the best song on the album by several reviewers and I can’t argue. It truly is a great song. As a matter of fact, it’s possibly the one that speaks to me the most, especially at this point in my life. Here it is…

I don’t even know what to say about the next track. Seriously…it’s almost like they just decided to be goofy. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” is right up there with “It’s The End Of The World” in it’s delivery with Stipe & Peaches singing and reminds me of when Kate Pierson joins Stipe on “Out of Time” on “Me In Honey” except this could have easily been a B-52’s song. It’s bouncy and catchy and will drive you nuts once it gets stuck in your head!

The next 2 tracks are short & sweet. “That Someone Is You” is a straight ahead rocker (reminiscent of their early 80’s work) while “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I” is almost a concession speech which makes me wonder what Stipe is trying to tell us when he sings…

We live and dream about our heroes
I listened closely and I said
“I’m not sure where to place myself here, friend.
I might pawn the gold rings instead.”

The winners write the rulebooks, the histories and lullabies.

The final track, “Blue,” is eerily similiar to “E-Bow The Letter” from “New Adventures In Hi-Fi” with Patti Smith once again joining Stipe with her haunting vocals and the music even sounding like a direct reference. However the lyrics, once again, take this song above and beyond. This is really more of a poem written by Stipe. Is it a love poem? Is it a look at himself? Is it his cry out for acceptance? What do these lyrics mean? Maybe we’ll never know. But I love how they go…

I like you, love you, every coast of you.
I’ve seen your eddies and tides and hurricanes and cyclones.
Low ebb tide and high, full moon.
Up close and distant.
I read you.
Look, the sky, the sea, the ocean, the sun, the moon.
Blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue blue, blue, blue, blue, blue.
Naked and blue.

Breathing with you. Touch. Change. Shift. Allow air. Window open. Drift. Drift away. Into now.

I want Whitman proud. Patti Lee proud. My brothers proud. My sisters proud. I want me. I want it all. I want sensational. Irresistible.

This is my time and I am thrilled to be alive.

Living. Blessed. I understand.

“Collapse Into Now” is the final album the band is contractually obligated to do for Warner Brothers. It’s also their 15th studio album. With music becoming more & more disposable, you have to wonder if a poet like Michael Stipe will continue to try to appeal to the masses. With R.E.M.’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, they really have nothing else to prove. Critics railed them for their post-Bill Berry work (“Reveal” & “Around The Sun”) and they came back with “Accelerate” and now this classic. With no tour scheduled and with the knowledge that Stipe, Peter Buck & Mike Mills have made their mark on rock & roll history, will they continue onward? Or will this be their swan song? It seems fitting that if this is their final album, it is a complex return to what made them so successful at the height of their careers and is every bit as good (if not better) than those albums all put together.

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