R.E.M.’s latest album “Collapse Into Now,” is misnamed. It isn’t in fact a complete ‘collapse’ for the band—but neither is it a step forward. “Collapse Into Now” is R.E.M.’s half-hearted attempt to evolve as a band. The album draws more from a broad swath of influences from classic rock to psychedelic music than from their own past. Through their incorporation of classic yet disparate influences, they only prove that they’re strongest when sticking to their original sound.
“Collapse Into Now” flows as well as any other R.E.M. album; it does not, however, have the coherence and unity that have set their previous work apart. While even their experimental albums “Around the Sun” or “Out of Time” saw R.E.M. committed to a new style, the same cannot be said of their latest. The songs seem to come from everywhere—from the stripped-down, piano-driven “Überlin” to the folksy, psychedelic groove of “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I,” an old-school R.E.M. number that borrows heavily from Simon and Garfunkel’s cadences and harmonies. Unlike the rest of the album, however, these two songs at least do a good job of recalling their respective eras while still retaining R.E.M.’s unique sound.
On songs like “Mine Smell Like Honey,” where R.E.M. goes back to their original alt-rock style, it’s easy to remember why they were so popular in the first place. The song is upbeat but not giddy, with a standard guitar-bass-drums instrumentation and a compelling, if repetitive, chorus. At times the song definitely pushes in a new direction, but it still sounds like their original stuff from the eighties. “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” also hearkens back to “Radio Free Europe,” their first ever single, which established their vastly influential sound.
Unfortunately, these songs are the exceptions, not the rule. Too many songs are like “Oh My Heart,” an unfortunate folksy ballad that inexplicably opens with a badly tuned brass section, or “That Someone Is You,” a confusing mix of movie references set to what could have been the basis of a decent alt-rock song. “Blue,” the last song on the album, wants to be original but instead turns into an overlong experiment in synthesized music and spoken word. The return of “Discoverer” at the end of the song is a relief because, although “Discoverer” sounds like a lost song by The Who, it is, at least, comprehensible.
Indeed, most of the lyrics on “Collapse Into Now,” while intelligible, are not understandable. Michael Stipe probably has a message he wants to convey, but his lyrics are often jumbled and do not relate to the music in tone or meaning. The lyrics of “That Someone Is You” is at best a list of random film references, which turn an otherwise enjoyable song into a confusing and incongruous stream of words. The most charitable reading would be that the album was not meant to have a cohesive meaning, but that is unlikely.
Though “Collapse Into Now” is not the band’s best work, it does contain some of the attributes of their past successes. Peter Buck’s striking guitar playing, which some cite as the reason for the band’s original success, continues to give songs like “Every Day Is Yours to Win” some edge. In addition, Mike Mills’s bass—although not at the forefront of the songs—adds to the musical depth of the tracks.
Though they have kept some of their signatures, R.E.M. has also put some work into trying out a variety of sounds. While the Georgia boys still sound best on the genre they created, songs like “Blue” prove that they want to change. Unfortunately, Stipe says it best on “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter”: “I have got a lot to learn.”