Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.
Considering that R.E.M. have recently entered their 30th year of existence, any attempt to contextualize in their 14-album back catalog their latest release, the ludicrously and unintentionally self-parodistically titled Collapse into Now, may prove desultory. Furthermore, given that expectations that the band will release another Murmur, Reckoning or Automatic for the People (or, depending on how one judges their career, another Document or Out of Time) are probably low, it's only natural for critics and even fans to assume, even before listening is initiated, that any long-running band's 15th studio album will prove just about as good as any other band's 15th studio album. However, it should be noted that The Rolling Stones' 16th studio album, Some Girls, is widely considered a masterpiece and one of the finest albums they ever released: so it's best to keep an open mind.
For side one opener "Discoverer," the group channel the many voices of their storied past to produce something familiar, if not formulaic, and one of the most exciting songs they've written in years. The song is also a refreshing reminder that Stipe, who has come to be regarded as something of a self-important figure, is not afraid to appear silly, stretching his gruff baritone into a higher register warble. "All the Best" and "That Someone Is You" (which references Al Pacino, as every R.E.M. must contain a lyric about an actor) find the group in an energized garage-rock mode, rocking harder than many listeners will have believed them capable: both are decent pastiches, though belong decidedly to the The Vines school of garage revivalism.
From its opening seconds, "Überlin" invokes the melody, production aesthetic, vocal rhythm and to a certain extent the lyrics of Automatic's "Drive," but if you ignore that, it's actually quite a pretty, if not beautiful, song: melancholy for its verse sequences, a bit more playful for its middle eight. "Oh My Heart," with its Celtic-sounding accordion arrangements, perhaps recalls The Pogues as well as another track from the aforementioned album, "Try Not to Breathe," but only vaguely. The first almost unredeemable track is the disappointingly formulaic, under-chewed bolus of "It Happened Today." Following this is the gentle, Cardigans-esque "Every Day Is Yours to Win" in which Stipe sings through a heavy filter: its zany chorus redeems the track slightly from its staid, repetitive to the point of headache-inducing verse sequences.
"Mine Smell Like Honey" recalls Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender," but a cover of that song would have been preferable: the track, along with its neighbor, "Walk it Back," typifies a tendency on the part of the band and producer Jacknife Lee, present throughout the entire album, to consciously invoke the sounds of older records (including their own), though in this case they rely too heavily on the sheer novelty of creating a very eighties-sounding record: the track is far more blatantly a recapitulation of the group's past than any of the preceding six.
"Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter" features contributions from Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye and (Patti Smith-esque) backing vocals and spoken word passages from Peaches, sounds a bit like musical theater-punk, is cute and little more. In another instance of hero worship comes the second song on this album to mention an actor from The Godfather, "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brano and I" which is efficiently sentimental but covers no new territory for this or any band. The album's final, and longest, track, "Blue" features singing from the real Patti Smith as well as a long spoken word poem by Eddie Vedder: an easy track to hate, as rock-poet pretensions tend to gall, but at its worst still mildly amusing — though I find the band's reprise of the opening track a bit condescending and clearly an attempt to pass Collapse Into Now off as a concept album.