“If a storm doesn’t kill me, the government will”, sang Michael Stipe on ‘Houston’, from 2008’s excellent return to form, Accelerate. A weary and worn out liberal after two terms of the Bush administration, Stipe hadn’t been as angry, disillusioned and politically engaged on Accelerate since 1987’s Document and 1988’s Green, both of which tore into the Reagan administration.
Fitting, then, that Stipe should now sing “A storm didn’t kill me, the government changed” on ‘Oh My Heart’, taken from R.E.M.’s second consecutive record with Jacknife Lee. Stipe, here, defines himself and R.E.M. as rock’s survivors, but also its chroniclers of social and political change in America. They are, clearly, more at peace with America and, more importantly, with themselves than ever before. Whereas Accelerate saw them return to the spiky, three minute punk-influenced pop songs that so defined Murmur and Reckoning, Collapse Into Now finds the band tapping into their own tradition yet somehow making it feel fresh, vital and new.
The hallmarks are all here; the bridge and chorus from ‘Discoverer’ could easily be ideas that didn’t make the cut on Document, yet Buck’s Eastern-influenced guitar phrase, which bookends the record, is memorable and unlike anything he’s played before. ‘All the Best’ feels like a distant relative of ‘The Wake Up Bomb’ from New Adventures in Hi- Fi, while ‘Überlin’ is a more fluid and memorable re-write of ‘Daysleeper’ from 1998’s Up. ‘Everyday is Yours to Win’ finds Stipe in Urban / 21st Century / Existential mode, as per recent records, all of which folds as strong a first side of a record as the band have produced in their 31 years of recording.
The second side opens with ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’, the most joyous, pop-sounding R.E.M. song imaginable. It’s given a very balanced and nuanced mix by Jacknife Lee, making it sound familiar yet wholly new and exciting. The chorus easily recalls ‘Bad Day’ and ‘It’s the End…’ and is more R.E.M. than R.E.M. itself. By contrast, ‘Walk it Back’ is a slow-tempo, piano-led tune, leading the listener to imagine what 2004’s career nadir, Around the Sun, might have sounded like had the band had the heart and energy to finish and mix it with care.
It’s then back to stomping mode with ‘Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter’ with backing vocals courtesy of Patti Smith and Peter Buck. It’s the combination of Stipe’s playful lyrics, urgent delivery and Buck’s riff-heavy yet jangly guitar that makes this, and the R.E.M. sound, what it is. Meanwhile ‘Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I’ finds Stipe engaging with Pop Culture as vividly as he did on 1994’s Monster, but with the slow burning, roots feel that so defined Automatic for the People. ‘Blue’, meanwhile, sees the band ending the record in relaxed form. In an ocean of reverb, distortion and acoustic guitar, Stipe’s rhapsodic delivery, coupled with his post-modern, epistolic lyrics, eases through a distorted mic and, backed by his heroine, Patti Smith, finds him signing off with ‘20th Century, collapse into now’.
What makes Collapse Into Now such a triumph is its authors’ engagement with their own sound, their own mythology and their knack of being able to make it sound and feel like a record by an up and coming band. The feel and form of the record is one of a band that have realised that there are many dimensions to their sound and songs. Thankfully, for the first time in a long time, R.E.M. are happy to be themselves.