R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

There was a period in the not very distant past when the release of any new R.E.M. album was an event. On the rise in the ’80s, they were an exciting band at the forefront of what at the time felt like nothing less than a movement, a righteous realignment of the American rock ‘n’ roll landscape. The scruffy Athens quartet emerged as a symbolic leader of that whole underground outbreak, and served as a consistent reminder that some of the best bands in your yet-to-be-jaded life could actually come out of your own area code. Even into the ’90s, during the height of their rock stardom, the quality of the group’s output generally warranted interest and respect.

The March release of Collapse Into Now could not have been any less of an event, except maybe in Athens or Rolling Stone, where they still are propped up as an ongoing Big Deal. Then again, Athens puts on a virtual fireworks display every time anyone from there releases anything, and in his review of Collapse Into Now, Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield asserts that it’s their best album “since their underrated 2001 gem, Reveal,” so you have to consider the source. I find it difficult to believe that any of the three remaining members of R.E.M., even Stipe, is truly, honestly jazzed about the songs on Collapse Into Now. If they are, then there’s part of the problem – they’ve lost their ability to realistically assess their own work, or they’re accepting bad advice from others, or…hell, I don’t know. Collapse Into Now just has the uninspired feel of a ho-hum, get-it-out-of-the-way contract-fulfiller. Which it basically is.

Every song here sounds like it was assembled from the recycled parts of their previous, better, more popular material. You’ve got elements that spark brief reminders of Document, or “Everybody Hurts” or Green and then of course Peter Buck whips out the mandolin for some tingly “Losing My Religion” vibes, or something. Maybe I’m being cynical – it wouldn’t be the first time – but it all just feels cloyingly calculated, a half-assed attempt to fool worshipful fans and inattentive reviewers into prematurely proclaiming it a grand return to form.

Fuck that. It’s lame, it’s uninspired, it’s everything this band wasn’t for so long, but has largely become over the past ten or twelve years. And the lyrics…Oh my lord, the lyrics…Well, they’re simply dawg-awful, some of the most embarrassingly bad things I’ve ever heard. “I am not a hater, hater, hater, hater, hater/ Hey, hey, alligator, you’ve got a lot to learn”? That wouldn’t have made an R.E.M. B-side 25 years ago. In “All the Best,” Michael Stipe actually utters the words, “Let’s show the kids how to do it.” Yeah, and get offa my lawn while yer at it! The less said about the one where he’s boasting that his (breath? balls? boyfriends?) smell like honey, the better.

Every great band puts out bad albums, especially after three decades together. The fan in me would like to believe R.E.M. may still have a gem left to reveal (sorry, Rob – Reveal wasn’t it). But I have to admit, it’s looking bleak, and the only thing they’re showing the kids how to do at this point is Accelerate Into Mediocrity.

Collapse Into Now
[Warner Bros.]