Back in the winter of 1999, I was a Creative Writing undergrad finishing up my fourth and final year. My major was English and Creative Writing, and in my main class for the latter I had submitted my final work for the term. It was a short story about models, sex and family, inspired by the work of writers like Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. To be honest, I don’t remember much more about it. What I do remember, though, is the reaction of two particular readers. The first was our professor, who hated the story and its usage of pop culture references and suggested I would be better of writing an account of my grandmother’s immigrant journey.
The second came from a fellow classmate, Pat Cleave, who honed in on an instance my piece where the protagonist (a far cooler version of myself, truth be told) recalled walking into a record store to buy the then new R.E.M. album, Out Of Time.
“I totally get that,” said Pat to the class (and the professor). “I remember doing that myself. I know exactly what you’re talking”
I was relieved. R.E.M and my so-called “dated” pop culture reference and the memory of the music contained resonated with somebody.
Last week R.E.M. released a new studio album, Collapse Into Now. In the press leading up to its arrival, I read quotes from bandmembers Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills where they were saying that the band’s latest offering was their best in 20 years. Every time I saw that, I would roll my eyes. Better than Out of Time? Than Automatic For The People? I hate that sort of hyperbole. U2 do it every time they’re shilling for their latest work and that sort of self-promotion has a way of wearing on me as a fan (that being said, every time U2 puts out something new I start to think it’s my favourite album by them). The thing with R.E.M. is that it really has been a long time since the band put out something that really ranked with their best work.
Since drummer Bill Berry’s departure from the band at the end of the 90’s, R.E.M. have been searching for themselves. Their first post-Berry work, 1998’s Up, had gorgeous moments on it, including the stellar Beach Boys homage At My Most Beautiful, but failed to resonate with anybody outside of their fan base. 2001’s Reveal seemed to put the band back on surer footing thanks to tracks like Imitation of Life and All The Way To Reno, but whatever goodwill the masses were showing R.E.M. was totally lost with 2005’s Around the Sun, the band’s worst performing album in years and one that I can honestly say I was only able to listen to twice. There was just nothing memorable about it whatsoever.
The band finally started on a creative comeback trail with 2008’s Accelerate, a short and sweet blast of rock and roll the band hadn’t demonstrated since 1994’s glam rock-ish Monster. But for me as a fan, I can’t say I really ever go back to that one either. It surely wasn’t an instant classic the way that Collapse Into Now is. That’s right. Amazingly, the band’s 15th album is genuinely their best in nearly 20 years, at least since Automatic For The People.
How did this happen? How did they do? Simply put, R.E.M. made an album of great songs that reminds us of what made them so beloved in the first place. Collapse Into Now sounds like R.E.M. Not R.E.M. trying to be a hard rocking band. They’re not trying to be experimental or acoustic balladeers. There’s no autotune or anything that makes Collapse Into Now of the moment, which only serves to make it that much timelier. Songs like Discoverer, the commanding opening track that also bookends the album, and Mine Smells Like Honey, the upbeat first single, are strong and vibrant and immediately catchy and would sound great on the radio. Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter, with its guest vocals from Peaches, recalls Kate Pierson’s vocal contributions from Out Of Time, while the return of Peter Buck’s mandolin throughout the album is welcome. The band still pushes itself, mind you, and aren’t content to simply make pop songs, the best example of which is closing track Blue, featuring vocals from New Adventures in Hi-Fi alumni Patti Smith.
Collapse Into Now has everything that makes an R.E.M. great and it’s a welcome and real return to form. I know this because, unlike the last decade of albums, I can’t stop listening to it. Often times when an artist makes an album that sounds familiar (U2’s All You Can’t Leave Behind is a perfect example), they’re accused of going retro or even pandering to their audience. Personally, I think that’s bullshit. An audience can see through a failed attempt at recalling past glories, especially one as devoted as R.E.M.’s. While it may not be Out of Time or Automatic for The People, to me Collapse Into Now feels like the culmination of work, the final chapter in a trilogy that maybe took longer to complete than was expected. If you ever loved the band or you came of age in the 90’s like me, I’m fairly certain you will find much to love. And if you’ve never bought an R.E.M. album, this is far from a bad place to start.
I hope that, wherever he is, my old university classmate Pat Cleave will discover this album and love it, much like we both loved Out Of Time all those years ago.