I think it’s been nearly 15 years since R.E.M. was cool, 20 years since it became a household name. I remember where I was when, as a pre-teen, I watched “Losing My Religion” on MTV for the first time. It’s the spring of 1991, I’m at a friend’s house because they have cable and good junk food, and… hey, what’s that funky arm-dance-and-loafer-shuffle that dweeby guy is doing on MTV? Angel wings, spilled milk, archery practice on an Asian kid, mesmerizing strobes – it was enough to make you go hmmmmm. But a weird, artsy video doesn’t make a song classic (see exhibit A: the video for “Total Eclipse of the Heart” [although this version borders on classic]). A song's sound makes it a classic, and R.E.M. was spot on with “Losing My Religion”: searching, vague, plaintive, soaring, and affecting. Then they almost ruined everything with “Shiny Happy People.” But I forgave them.
I’m putting up this post mostly because I just kind of think R.E.M. deserves a post on Abu Halen, you know? You haven’t really arrived until Abu Halen has blogged about you. So, basically no one has arrived, ever. The music-buying public largely left R.E.M. for dead after 1999’s critically-disappointing album Up, though their albums since typically peak quickly somewhere in or near Billboard’s top 10, before quickly fading away. I think basically R.E.M. has a core of followers between the ages of about 50 (these folks would’ve been hip college kids when the band pioneered “college radio” in the early- and mid-80s) and 30 (we were teens when the band literally conquered the world in the early-90s). This core has likely been the only demographic buying R.E.M.’s stuff for the past 15 years. Which is a crying shame. I don’t really think my opinion will convince anyone who is only casually interested in music to up and buy some recent R.E.M. but it’s kind of like the starfish story, right? If my informed opinion sways just one person to listen to some recent R.E.M., and their life then overflows with joy, my efforts mattered to that one soul.
R.E.M. put out a new album a few months ago, called Collapse Into Now. I think it’s a classic, though it’d be wrong to say it’s a “return to form,” or something stupid and cliched like that. Such a statement implies that a band had a formula at one time, tried something else that sucked and flopped, and thus meekly shuffle back to their money-making sound. Instead, Collapse Into Now is the first album since 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi that consistently employs what I think makes R.E.M. R.E.M.: wry, kaleidoscopic, freewheeling lyrics, soaring arrangements, and a pervading sense of self-assuredness (to demonstrate what I mean, I cite one of my favorite of R.E.M.’s nonsensical, yet somehow insightful, verses. It comes from “Departure” on New Adventures, in which Michael Stipe describes someone recently departed on an airplane [note: I don’t condone f-bombs, but sometimes other people use them effectively for alliterative purposes]: “Departure, Godspeed, bless his heart, good Lord/what a !*@& up, what a fighter/a freak fall, motorcycle, hang glider/hung on the line like a poison spider/win a eulogy from William Greider/car crash, Ptomaine, disposable lighter/a bus plunge, avalanche, a vinegar cider.” You can’t whip up a verse like that unless you’re Michael Stipe. Or Franz Kafka).
Throughout the 80s, it seemed that everything the band put to tape bled these qualities. “Moral Kiosk,” “Harborcoat,” “Fall on Me,” “Finest Worksong” – they were all hummable, unintelligible yet intelligent, and completely un-self-conscious. R.E.M.’s post-Bill Berry material was, in my opinion, brilliant on various levels, but lacked consistent R.E.M.-ness. Still, some of my favorite musical and lyrical moments come from this period. For instance, on Up’s “Lotus,” where Stipe waxes autobiographical: “I was hell/sarcastic silver swell… storefront window/I reflect/just last week I was merely heck,” or that same album’s gorgeous “sing along” chorus on “Diminished,” as well as the best ballad of R.E.M.’s career in “At My Most Beautiful.” The entirety of 2001’s Reveal is gorgeous: mellow and sun-kissed. I love it. The politically-charged Around the Sun contains the first song a child of mine mimicked – the lilting “yeah, yeah, yeah” chorus on “The Ascent of Man.”
Accelerate, released in 2008, received critical acclaim as R.E.M.’s comeback album, but I found it cold and a bit lifeless. The band seemed to take itself overly seriously on the album, like it was consciously trying to make a bold statement. It just didn’t feel like R.E.M., though there were a few sun breaks where the band’s essence shone through, particularly the album’s throwaway closing track “I’m Gonna DJ” (with a wonderfully off-the-cuff verse “Death is pretty final/I’m collecting vinyl.”)
Collapse Into Now is a winner because, for the first time since the mid-90s, R.E.M. fills a full album with unabashed melodiousness and that distinctive touch of disjointed lyrical mischievousness that marks the band’s best moments. They poke fun at their long absence from pop music’s center stage (“It’s just like me to overstay my welcome,” Stipe observes in “All the Best”), while summarily dismissing the past with a shrug and moving on (“It was what it was/let’s all get on with it,” is all Stipe has to say on the matter in the clean, high, jangling “Discoverer”).
“It Happened Today,” and “Mine Smell Like Honey” feature Stipe and Mike Mills throwing their intertwining voices joyously upward in unapologetically majestic and distinctively R.E.M. choruses, reminiscent of album tracks from the band’s early days like “Pilgrimage” or “Shaking Through.” “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” surges forward on a furious punk rock beat, while “Walk it Back” strolls along on a warm piano cadence and Stipe’s rich vocals. On Collapse Into Now, R.E.M. sounds like a band once again sure and unapologetic of where it came from, confident in what it does, and fully comfortable in its own skin. They were aggressive on Accelerate, political on Around the Sun, mellow, subtle, and introspective on Reveal and Up. Now they’re R.E.M. again; it’s unfortunate that a lot of folks aren’t paying any attention. Kind of like you stopped paying attention three paragraphs ago. I can’t really blame you though – whenever I start talking music, eyes glaze over and their owners try to edge away from me. I create boredom in others that they themselves can’t fully understand.