Released in March 2011, Collapse Into Now is R.E.M.’s 15th studio album, coming 28 years after their first (Murmur, 1983). It also fulfilled their five-record contract with Warner and, as it turned out, was their last studio album period, as the band announced in September 2011 that they were ‘calling it a day’. Despite an interview around that time where Mike Mills, the bassist, had claimed relief at being free of the contract, Collapse Into Now doesn’t sound anything like a contractual obligation album. Instead, it is a fitting end to a career that spanned three decades.
Before getting to the album itself, a little background on the latter half of those 30 years is worth exploring.
First, this chart:
The last two albums are missing from the list but according to Wikipedia, the sales for them were:
Accelerate (2008): 350,000 in North America, combined worldwide sales of 627,500
Collapse Into Now (2011): 142,000 in North America (prior to the band’s announced breakup)
Out of Time is easily the band’s biggest success commercially and despite being a ‘dark’ album, Automatic did very well, too. The band changed course with Monster, going for a grungier straight-up rock approach but the majority of fans stuck with them. That changed with New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which (barely) failed to reach the coveted 1 million mark. The decline continued apace and didn’t reverse until Accelerate. Collapse Into Now sadly failed to catch on, performing even worse than the somnambulant Around the Sun. It’s hard not to imagine the tepid reaction factored in the band’s decision to break up.
R.E.M signed a gigantic contract in 1996 and at the time it was widely viewed as too rich but the band had proven their worth to Warner with multiple million sellers, so it seemed like a small risk at best. Two things happened, though, that made that risk much larger than it initially seemed. First came Bill Berry’s departure in 1997. While he left on good terms and went on to periodically play with the band, it created the first stirrings of break-up talk. It also coincided with a restlessness the band seemed to be experiencing. New Adventures has a number of good tracks but to me the album feels like an at times uneasy hybrid of the feedback-laden Monster and the darker, more acoustic sounds of Automatic. The impression is that of a band exploring and trying to find new things to stay interested and engaged in the process of creating music, with mixed results.
With their drummer departed the band seized on the chance to play with drum machines or to completely de-emphasize percussion, leading to 1998′s Up, an album that opens with the murmuring echo of “Airportman” and overall has a melancholy feel to it. The band shed most of the melancholy for the follow-up, Reveal (“Imitation of Life” is classic R.E.M.) but the arrangements were becoming ever-denser and elaborate, almost baroque (see: “Saturn Return”). By 2004 the band was adrift and Around the Sun, though opening strongly with “Leaving New York” is a muddled affair, none of the songs actually awful but likewise none distinguishing themselves in the mid-tempo morass that comprised the album. Sales cratered.
In 2008 they decided to strip things down and came up with Accelerate, a 34-minute album that lives up to its name, starting out with the propulsive “Living Well is the Best Revenge” and ending the same way with “I’m Gonna DJ”. In-between the album does slow down to catch its breath on a few tracks. Audiences responded by lifting its sales past Around the Sun. But something happened after that. It’s almost as if a large contingent of fans felt they had met their own obligations in supporting the band so when Collapse Into Now released, it debuted decently (#5) but sank quickly. (The negative-sounding album title and first track “Mine Smell Like honey” probably didn’t help.)
And that’s a shame (here comes the review) because Collapse Into Now is the band’s best album since 1996. It builds on the strengths of Accelerate by maintaining the energy and joy of that album while expanding the musical palette to include a better mix of songs and styles. Still exploring, the band reins in a lot of the excesses of the post-Berry era and for the most part delivers a worthy coda to their career.
Two of the same keys that worked on Accelerate are featured here — Mike Mills’ prominent backing vocals and keeping the percussion forward in the mix. At the same time the album breathes more freely than Accelerate so quieter tracks like the plaintive “Walk it Back” and “Oh My Heart” fit better as part of the whole. In a callback to their earliest albums Michael Stipe’s vocals are often pushed back in the mix. Not that he seems to mind, as he whispers, shouts and croons with enthusiasm throughout the record.
The standout tracks are the opening “Discoverer”, “Uberlin”, “Oh My Heart” and “It Happened Today”, all if which can easily stand beside the band’s best efforts. The latter features soaring, wordless vocals for much of the song, recalling a similar approach used in the chorus for “Orange Crush” from 1988′s Green. “Discoverer” is a speeding train of an opener, an energetic track that segues into the similarly up-tempo “All the Best” before pulling back for the simple acoustics of “Uberlin”. “Discoverer” reappears as the coda to the album’s final song, “Blue”, closing the circle and perhaps hinting at the band’s coming demise. “Blue” is a great example of R.E.M. going back to its older material for inspiration, with Peter Buck’s mournful guitar at the beginning echoing “Country Feedback” from Out of Time and Stipe’s spoken word performance calling back to the same album’s “Belong”. Heck, even Patti Smith shows up, providing ethereal backing vocals just as she did on “E-bow the Letter” from New Adventures.
In the end, the lack of commercial success for Collapse Into Now doesn’t matter much as R.E.M. is no longer an ongoing concern and the bandmates have vowed never to reunite. I wonder if it will some day become the ‘forgotten classic’ of R.E.M.’s catalog. It would be worthy of the designation.