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Album review: R.E.M.'s 'Collapse Into Now'

March 7, 2011 |  9:33 pm

Cms_image_7591 Why be a band? In 2011, the answer isn’t often “to make the best music.” Synth-powered duos, bedroom soloists and artistically polyamorous collectives define innovative rock now; that’s how young artists step up to the challenges posed by hip-hop’s highly flexible collaborative structures. Heroic little guitar armies haven’t completely vanished — Vampire Weekend and the National still bring it — but with Arcade Fire and Animal Collective in the lead, the terms have changed, and the ones we thought were totally changing things in punk’s aftermath now seem conservative, even quaint.

R.E.M. is one elder band that keeps trying to adapt to this sea change. Drummer Bill Berry’s now long-ago departure disrupted the basic unit but also created possibilities. Electronic-touched experiments such as 1998’s “Up” and 2004’s “Around the Sun” pleased few fans, but these introspective experiments could be rediscovered as cult classics in a decade or so.

You can’t eat the future, though, and in 2008 R.E.M. went back to work. “Accelerate” was a combat-ready rock record. Super-talented drummer Bill Rieflin, a longtime R.E.M. shadow member, stepped into the star role he deserves, and Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe took up the challenge. “Accelerate” was aggressive and playful, like an old lothario’s turn on the dance floor, his swagger silvery but still hot.

R.E.M. is advertising “Collapse Into Now” as more expansive than other recent efforts, but in fact it feels more settled. Stipe sings about responding to “the kids” more than once in it its 12 songs, but the band doesn’t engage in any current trends. Instead it returns to form, in detail, moving through the R.E.M. cookbook with the focus and precision of an Iron Chef.

“Discoverer,” the first track, is an arena-ready smasher highlighting R.E.M.’s particular knack for combining fluidity and punch, with Rieflin’s drums interlocking with Buck’s circulating guitar lines and Mills’ automatic-for-the-people bass overdrive. “I have never felt so called,” sings Stipe in the midst of a lyric that might be about good sex saving a longtime relationship. “Collapse Into Now” unfolds with remarkable orderliness after this forthright opener. Revisiting old formulas, R.E.M. still makes them taste good.

What you like about this band is here: touching ballads, heady cafe poetics with Patti Smith stepping in on the open mike, messy guitars, clean mandolin. There’s Mills yelping in the background and sometimes up front, augmented by pals old (Eddie Vedder, Smith) and new (Peaches, Hidden Cameras leader Joel Gibb). There’s Stipe, finding wisdom in free association. The band revisits the garage on ravers “Mine Smell Like Honey,” “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” (Lenny Kaye slaps some licks on that one) and the chapel of secular love on meditations such as “Walk It Back” and “Oh My Heart.” Every effort is expertly realized — a muscle flex without strain.

With every new R.E.M. album, a longtime fan has to wonder: What would it be like for a kid to discover the group through this one? “Collapse Into Now” could hook new listeners; it offers plenty of the band’s particular umami. But when a band isn’t seeking anything new, a project’s emotional impact weakens. Why be a band? On this album, the answer seems to be, because that’s what you are. Fair enough.


— Ann Powers

R.E.M.
“Collapse Into Now”
Warner Bros.
Three stars

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