Tuesday 21 November 2017

Music: Collapse into Now by REM ****

(Warner Bros)

John Meagher

John Meagher

Thirty years ago this summer, REM released Radio Free Europe, their debut single, and it kick-started one of the greatest run of releases in American rock history. From 1983's Murmur to 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry seamlessly moved from college rock gods to mainstream champions.

It's been a far rougher ride in the 15 years since. Berry's departure tangibly robbed the band of some of their magic and there have been some very low moments -- 2004's listless Around the Sun was a shockingly poor album by their standards.

Happily, their last outing, Accelerate, was the sound of a band revitalised. With Irish producer Jacknife Lee in tow, they kicked up an appealing garage racket that recalled their early days and sounded mighty fine when debuted during the so-called Working Rehearsal shows at Dublin's Olympia.

This, REM's 15th studio album, sees them team up with Lee once more. The stripped-back approach has been largely eschewed in favour of what one might call the "classic REM sound" that appealed to millions on Out of Time and Automatic for the People. Jangly guitars? Check. Mandolins? Check. Lovely Mike Mills harmonies? Check. Anthems? They're here. Left-field experimentalism? Yup. Solitary cheesy, goofy song? Yes (unfortunately).

With a wider palate comes an eclectic album that will have long-time fans recalling past glories simply because many of the songs sound like they could be released at different points of the band's career. The strident opener Discoverer would not have been out of place on Document or Green, while Mine Smell Like Honey is the sort of harmony-driven power-pop number that made 1986's Life's Rich Pageant sparkle.

Then there's the spoken-worded Blue that's remarkably close in spirit to Stipe's own REM favourite, Country Feedback. His voice is distorted by vocoder while Patti Smith provides an engaging vocal counterpoint. It may not be as arresting as the pair's previous duet (on E-Bow the Letter), but it is a life-affirming song to live long in the memory.

There are several guest appearances. Peaches is recruited for the daft but insidiously catchy Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter, while Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and The Hidden Cameras' Joel Gibb provide vocals on It Happened Today's gloriously rousing coda.

The wistful acoustic ballad Uberlin doffs its hat -- in name only -- to the fact that the album was partly recorded in Berlin's Hansa Studio where David Bowie, Iggy Pop and U2 made some of their most vital albums.

Collapse into Now may not be in the top division of REM albums, but alongside Accelerate it provides evidence that the trio's creativity is still intact. In places, they sound like their own tribute band, but then you listen to the tender loveliness of Oh My Heart -- written for post-Katrina New Orleans -- and it hardly seems to matter.

Burn it: It Happened Today; Mine Smell Like Honey; Blue

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