Tuesday, 8 March 2011

R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now

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After R.E.M.’s golden run of albums between 1989’s ‘Green’ and 1994’s ‘Monster’, the band’s popularity hit stratospheric levels. They could seemingly do no wrong. Then came the marginal ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ – an album which polarises fans. While some praise it for its moodiness, others find it song-less and more than a bit dull. From that point on R.E.M. continued releasing million-selling albums, but there was a general feeling they were past their best - a feeling which culminated with the release of 2004’s often maligned ‘Around The Sun’.

Nearly seven years and a couple of albums later, the early buzz surrounding ‘Collapse Into Now’ suggested that R.E.M.’s 2011 release was something a bit special. While no ‘Automatic For The People’ or ‘Monster’, it certainly comes loaded with its share of winners. In fact, it plays like a voyage through each of the styles and whims of R.E.M.’s long career, as if they’ve made a conscious effort to try please all of their fans on one all-encompassing release.

With ‘Discoverer’ the album opens with a rather crashy number. Weaving its charm by way of chiming guitars, naturally, this evokes a ‘Monster’ style REM. There’s more than a hint of ‘Bang and Blame’ surrounding this number in places, and while musically it isn’t too complex, it has a couple of nice touches – most notably a great bass courtesy of Mike Mills, shining through the small wall of guitars. Stipe’s vocal isn’t always completely audible, though I suspect his lyrics are a collection of oblique words. While musically it holds its own, it’s let down a little by a chorus which fails to stretch much beyond Stipe repeatedly shouting ‘Discoverer’. ‘All The Best’ follows in a similar mood, with a focus on electric guitars and general rock posturing. It has the quality of a comfortable pair of shoes; the kind of number which feels like you’ve always known it.

‘It Happened Today’ explores the band’s Americana pop elements; while the best elements are drawn from Peter Buck’s mandolin work, it’s an album stand out with regard to harmony vocals. The melding of Stipe, Buck and Mills’s voices provide a great sunshine vibe. During the closing moments where those harmonies make up the bulk of the entertainment, they are joined by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, though his contribution is somewhat understated.

For those looking for more of R.E.M.’s pastel shades, ‘Collapse Into Now’ features a few more stand outs. ‘Oh My Heart’ is a brilliant acoustic based waltz with Peter Buck’s distinctive guitars and mandolins accompanied by very European sounding accordion and sousaphone work. In these relaxed atmospheres, Stipe sounds superb. This ought to be enough to make the track a fan favourite, despite a slightly wobbly chorus featuring some rather ugly backing vocals. ‘Walk It Back’ is a maudlin, piano-based number which provides a great showcase for Stipe as an understated vocalist. It’s a number which works by virtue of its relative simplicity. The sparse piano, occasional echoing guitar and warm bass work captures the reflective R.E.M. in fantastic form. Those who still find themselves hopelessly attracted by ‘Automatic For The People’ will certainly find plenty of enjoyment from the quirky, acoustic ‘Überlin’, which features great performances from all concerned. Behind great lead work, R.E.M.’s unofficial fifth member Scott McCaughey adds plenty of texture with simple organ lines. Once again, post-‘Monster’ R.E.M. have rarely sounded better than they do here.

‘Mine Smell Like Honey’ is another upbeat electric number, though not the kind of fuzz-driven rock which pumped ‘Monster’s blood. This number is bouncier, more naive – a deliberate attempt to capture some of the spirit which drove their earliest works. With a small amount of tweaking, it sounds like something which could slot into running order of ‘Reckoning’. Such a throwback to an older sounding R.E.M. certainly comes as a surprise. And it’s an even bigger surprise that it doesn’t sound forced or unnatural for them to play in such a style after so many years have passed. A similar musical spirit powers ‘That Someone Is You’, where Buck’s guitars jangle relentlessly. This doesn’t sound quite as natural, however, since moments of organ and a slight treatment on Stipe’s vocal are just enough to remind the listener this wasn’t recorded in 1984. The energy throughout the track cannot be faulted though and pulling in at under two minutes, it certainly clears the cobwebs!

One time Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye offers his chops to two numbers. He can be heard playing the featured solos on ‘Alligator Aviator Autopilot¬¬ Antimatter' and ‘Blue’. ‘Alligator’ is an upbeat offering, all rock swagger and pounding drums. Hardly essential R.E.M., but it’s definitely lots of fun, sounding like it was created with live performance in mind. A guest appearance by Peaches adds very little overall, her performance not much more than an echo of Stipe’s main voice. The angular soloing offered by Kaye brings the track a welcome, but brief moment of edginess. ‘Blue’, meanwhile, is a downbeat number which also features Patti Smith herself. Having first performed on the dreary ‘E-Bow The Letter’ from ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’, the idea of Patti Smith collaborating with Stipe and co isn’t a new phenomenon, but thankfully, ‘Blue’ isn’t as flat as that aforementioned track. Throughout, Stipe offers a overly wordy spoken performance, while Smith’s distinctive voice handles the other, more traditional vocal; her off-kilter style given a very haunting quality thanks to the use of atmospherically played reverbed guitars and piano. It’s not catchy by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly ends ‘Collapse Into Now’ on a reflective note. Before the track stops, there’s a brief reprise of ‘Discoverer’ bringing things full circle, but it feels a little bolted on after the drifting atmospherics of Stipe and Smith captured in duet.

In many ways, the early “return to form” hype regarding ‘Collapse Into Now’ can be seen as true. It’s certainly a well-rounded album evoking a lot of the band’s best pre-‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ works. It’s not as classic as that run of releases between 1989’s ‘Green’ and 1994’s ‘Monster’, but to expect that it could have been, is somewhat foolish. Thankfully, though, ‘Collapse Into Now’ is streets ahead of the drudgery of ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ and much better than the “R.E.M. on auto-pilot” approach of everything which followed.

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