Let’s get the conventional wisdom out of the way: Collapse Into Now is R.E.M.’s best album since Bill Berry hopped on a tractor and left behind a three-legged dog. Michael Stipe famously used that phrase to describe R.E.M. shortly after Berry’s departure in 1997, and it has turned out to be an apt metaphor. For a band that once casually recorded an incredible album during concert soundchecks, R.E.M. has since stumbled to match its own legacy with mixed results. Up, disappointing as it was upon release, has aged into an awkward, oddball gem. The classicist Reveal, hailed by many at the time as a return-to-form, was bogged down by over-instrumentation and airless production. Around the Sun holds the ignoble distinction of being R.E.M.’s only mediocre album. It, too, was a victim of the same studio fiddling that hurt Reveal, only it had genuinely weak material to start with. Lean and energetic, Accelerate was the adrenaline shot the resuscitated the band from near-death. Though a handful of songs were terrific, the album was often more eager than it was memorable.
In 2007, R.E.M. played five “live rehearsal” shows at Dublin’s Olympia Theater. The band previewed most of what would become Accelerate, but more importantly, they ran through their classic catalog with renewed vigor. The Dublin residency, documented on the excellent double-album Live at the Olympia, marks the turning point for late-period R.E.M. By looking to the past, Buck, Mills, and Stipe rediscovered R.E.M.’s greatness, and they sounded as surprised and giddy as their audience. The result of this rebirth was not Accelerate. Those songs, mostly finished at the time, were more cause than effect. No, the true offspring of the band’s Irish renaissance is R.E.M.’s fifteenth album, Collapse Into Now.
R.E.M. - "Mine Smell Like Honey"
So: the three-legged dog has finally recorded an R.E.M album. Some will gripe that CollapseInto Now sounds too much like an R.E.M. album, and they would be right. All the archetypal songs of the band’s canon are represented on Collapse: the Big Opener (“Discoverer”), the Mid-Tempo Folk Number (“Überlin”), the Crunchy Rocker (“All the Best”), the Obvious First Single (“Mine Smell Like Honey”), the Baroque Acoustic Ballad (“Oh My Heart”), the Dumb Rawk Song (“That Someone is You”), the Public Service Announcement (“Every Day is Yours to Win”) – hell, there’s even another Patti Smith Collaboration (“Blue”). Mandolins! Self-referential lyrics! Plaintive Mike Mills backup vocals! Grab your cards, folks, we’re playing R.E.M. bingo.
Those who have been paying attention know this isn't a problem. There hasn’t been a genuinely original R.E.M. album since Fables of the Reconstruction. You could even argue the band hasn't deviated from the template established on Murmur. Of course every song on Collapse has some antecedent in R.E.M.'s heyday, but they still hold up, particularly on the album's first half. “Discoverer” and “All the Best” recall the raucous one-two punch of Lifes RichPageant’s “Begin the Begin” and “These Days.” The soaring soft-rock of “Überlin” and the gorgeous “Oh My Heart” mirror Automatic for the People’s “Try Not to Breathe” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight.” “It Happened Today,” with its stately body and transcendent coda, would have fit nicely on Out of Time. The second half of the album hews closer to latter-day R.E.M., though with better results.
R.E.M. - "Oh My Heart"
Collapse Into Now very much wants to be a sequel to the sprawling New Adventures in Hi-FI, the last R.E.M album venerated by critics and die-hards alike. But Collapse never quite comes together (despite the album-ending reprise of “Discoverer”). And frankly, for as good as it is, itdoesn’t match the brilliance of New Adventures. Instead, Collapse resembles the band’s major-label debut Green: it's merely a great collection of R.E.M. songs. Fifteen years ago, this would have been a disappointment. Today, it’s a triumph.