Album Review: Collapse into 1996 with R.E.M.’s throwback new release

R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now (2011) | ★★★☆☆

Since drummer Bill Berry's departure in 1997, R.E.M. has fought to maintain its record of producing consistently successful and provoking albums.

Beginning with Up (1998) and continuing through Accelerate (2008), R.E.M. has for the past ten years delivered sub-par, dissatisfying and underdeveloped albums. The band's 15th studio album, Collapse Into Now, delivers a glimpse of the progression fans have been waiting for since Berry's departure.

While Collapse offers nothing of the glory achieved by R.E.M.'s groundbreaking releases like Out of Time and Automatic for the People in the early '90s, it is a step away from the band's strange pseudo-electronic and punk divergences heard throughout the past decade. Collapse offers a combination of older, classic R.E.M. and the newer, refined sound the band has been searching for since 1996.

The album shows off the band's ability to continuously deliver daring lyrics and powerful guitar riffs, but sometimes becomes too much of a throwback to older R.E.M. sounds. The delayed opening in "Hey" and twang of the acoustic guitar intro on "Überlin," the second single off the album, is reminiscent of "Drive," the lead single from 1992's Automatic for the People. The similarity almost ruins one of the most memorable and satisfying choruses of the new album.

These annoying similarities also surface in other songs on the album: "Blue" seems like a dull re-imagination of 1996's "E-bow the Letter," and "Oh My Heart" carries an acoustic tempo similar to that of 1991's "Country Feedback" and 1996's "New Test Leper."

While the return to past albums remains somewhat detrimental to Collapse, many songs shine through as original and progressive compositions. The thumping power-chords on "Mine Smell Like Honey" show off guitarist Peter Buck's unending ability to create complex, majestic melodies that tower over the entire song. "Walk It Back" is a nostalgic song in which singer Michael Stipe's still-sharp voice overshadows the instrumentals, enveloping the listener in the song's story of regret as it laments saying what's on your heart only to trip over your words and be misunderstood.

The album features many guest appearances. Eddie Vedder performs howling backing vocals on "It Happened Today;" proto-punker Patti Smith lends her voice to both "Blue" and "Discoverer" as she did previously on "E-bow the Letter;" and Lenny Kaye plays guitar solos on both "Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter" and "Blue." A look through the album's complete personnel listing reveals the collaboration of many more musicians.

The record as a whole is a combination of classic R.E.M. sounds and something new that is trying to break out. While the album is the most complex and fulfilling since 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, it does not show the new R.E.M. that fans have been waiting for, but rather a brief preview of the band to come.