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The REMBOWAH WEEK pt1: the rem

09/03/2011
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I believe this is the first time in this blog’s lifetime that I’m going to talk about R.E.M. properly, which means it’s time for some preface about the writer-centric context the following ramble falls under. The main gist of course being that if we were to rank the artists I like into an order of preference, R.E.M. would be somewhere at the very top – to the extent that they’re more or less one of the personally more important bands for me. I’ve also never been a person who finds it easy to agree with the oft-dismissing and critical music canon. R.E.M. may have continued past changing from an indie label to a major one and even continuing after one of the original members left, changing styles constantly throughout, but to me they’ve never lost what makes them so great. During their long career that has now started its fourth decade, they’ve only ever done one somewhat naff album and that’s their second one, all the way back in the eighties. A lot of their later period material is nothing short of brilliant and in particular Up is one of my favourite things of all time. Not that I want to give an image of myself that I’d be dismissing their earlier days – on the other hand, I have almost nothing but positive things to say about them (outside Reckoning which I continue to think is their weakest effort and a clear case of the classic sophomore slump effect in music, although certainly not without its merits).

Thus, Collapse Into Now is definitely one of the landmark releases of the year for me based on the band alone. 2011 is shaping up to be a marvelous year, but I doubt very many albums will meet the same level of excitement I’ve had for this. Not because of their quality but simply because these guys are a Big Thing in Flintworld.

So, Collapse Into Now, then?

R.E.M. have always been a band who have eluded having a very specific sound. Whilst everything they’ve ever done sounds nothing else but R.E.M., they’ve gone through so many stylistic phases that it’s hard to pinpoint which album exactly sounds most like the band in their very core and essence. Every now and then the band have released records that raise that very notion of varied sound as the central sound of those records, offering a wild bunch of different songs all connected only by the simple notion that they sound like R.E.M., even if they have nothing to do with eachother otherwise. Collapse Into Now belongs into that bunch. It has its origins very steadily in 2008’s Accelerate that saw the band resurrect their urges to ROCK in an almost rejuvenated spree of sudden energy: not only does around half of Collapse Into Now have that same blood course through their veins, but Jacknife Lee is once again on the production chair with his crisp, sharp rock production that you either hate or find nothing too special. There is clear lineage between the two albums but it’s been three years between those albums and the long recording sessions have seen the band fly all around the world to different locations, catching a different vibe in each one. Accelerate may be audible in Collapse Into Now, but it’s far, far from what makes Collapse into the album it is.

For the majority of the album, the straightforward arena rock is put aside from a sprawling, wild bunch of entirely different songs that somehow morph into a part of a larger continuum, and it’s those pieces that carry the heart of Collapse. It would be wrong to dismiss the rock moments as they certainly offer plenty to enjoy: “Discoverer” is a fantastic opener and brilliant in itself, “All the Best” kicks it out like Accelerate’s best moments, “Mine Smell Like Honey” has one hell of a chorus and the sheer, flat-out daft energy of “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” is hard to believe to come out of a band on their 15th album. But it’s not that side where Collapse’s true appeal lies in – it’s the sudden treks into whole different worlds that makes Collapse into a captivating listen. The gentle lullaby “Every Day Is Yours to Win”, mournful “Oh My Heart” and almost classically pretty “Walk It Back” are the tender beauty that adds a feeling of gentleness; “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” is a dreamy lilt that sees the band sink into a whole different world for about three minutes as its soft acoustic tones and string sweeps feel almost otherwordly; “It Happened Today” sounds like a classic R.E.M. single but one which takes the band’s secret weapon that is their knack for gorgeous vocal harmonies and makes it into the central focus of the song as it begins what sounds like a typical final climax only a halfway through to the song, to brilliant results; while “Überlin” is simply classic R.E.M. without a single twist, simply showcasing why this band happens to be such a great one. And at the end there’s “Blue” – it’s a song that’s never going to escape comparisons to the band’s former catalogue, sounding like the bastard child of “Country Feedback” and “Belong” in a far, far more serious sense than usual review comparisons (the possible live entrances of it will surely result in some massive mindfuck for the fans when they try to realise what has just been started to play), but which triumphs nonetheless, giving an otherwise fairly direct a wonderfully odd, dense ending… or so one would think until “Discoverer” re-arises from its final feedback. A guy like me who’s a massive nerd for inter-album referentialism gives a massive pleased “ooh”.

So far so good, eh? It’s a good album, definitely. Very good. I’m not a person who believes in hasty judgements and while I’ve been listening to Collapse before its actual release (through the official webstream, thank you very much), it’s still waaaay too early to give a final word on it (this is also why I do not do rating scores in this blog, in case you ever wondered about that) and thus there’s a chance for the album to still grow even more or diminish its initial power. It’s more likely for the latter to happen but that said, Collapse isn’t an album that offers perfect satisfaction. There’s something a bit off in it, and the more I listen to it the more the rockers seem to be the causes for that. Now like I stated before, some of them are downright great and genuinely they’re an enjoyable bunch. But the other songs are even more enjoyable and especially on the latter half of the album the more riffed-out moments seem like long interludes between the actual meat. The only actual offender, if you will, is the short (under two minutes!) stadium punk “That Someone Is You” that ticks all the filler boxes and feels like a particularly complicated and finicky wrapper around the lovely candy of the following “Me, Marlon Brando etc”. There’s also the slight niggle of Stipe’s lyricism: he’s one of my favourite lyricist but during the past few albums he’s started to slip somewhat, relying a bit too much on somewhat nonsensical simple rhymes and overtly vague meanings that seem a bit haphazard. It’s an issue that plagues Collapse as well. In a somewhat amusing twist, the album’s best lyrics seem to come from Blue, a song which hides its vocals in muddled filters and is the only song without lyrics in the booklet.

As a final nutshell, whilst it lacks the superb greatness of most of their output I gladly welcome Collapse Into Now to be a part of the good family. Chances are it’s going to prove just how good it is as I give it a little more time, especially one that isn’t interrupted by about a billion other (okay, two) brand new albums appearing in the exact same time frame. There’s a handful of really great songs and a whole bunch of good ones. Fanboy’s happy.


Überlin

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