R.E.M. sounds like R.E.M. on "Collapse Into Now. (Courtesy of the band)
"The band's best album since" is a line of praise that attaches to every new album. There's nothing to suggest that "Collapse Into Now," the band's 15th, will break this streak. Make an iTunes playlist of the seven previous R.E.M. albums, put it on shuffle, pick the first dozen tracks, and it would probably sound a whole lot like "Collapse." It's an overly familiar collection that plays like a sampling of all the sounds R.E.M. has tackled since it ascended to World Famous Rock Stars status. There are crunchy electric guitars, moody mandolins and witticisms both goofy and insightful from singer Michael Stipe.
Is it R.E.M.'s best album since the Clinton era? Maybe. But really, R.E.M. has long settled into a state where it's simply the best album since the last one and until the next one. There's a reason critics keep repeating themselves, and it's only partly due to laziness. Each time R.E.M. reemerges, there's that brief moment of excitement, and "Collapse" is no different. It's hard not to feel a rush during opener "Discoverer," as Peter Buck's guitar shifts from a pleasant chime to a booming rumble and Michael Stipe sings, "With just the slightest bit of finesse/I might have made a little less mess," in a stilted howl. It sounds like "I Could Turn You Inside Out." It sounds like "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" It should be called "Rediscoverer." It doesn't matter - it's a rock song of serious might.
"UBerlin" sounds like a mashup of "Losing My Religion" and "Drive," two of the band's biggest hits, both mid-tempo and acoustic-based. More importantly, the song features what has always been the band's most reliable weapon - the sweet harmonies of Stipe and bassist Mike Mills. Those are brought to the forefront even more on "Oh My Heart," a Katrina tearjerker ("I came home to a city half-erased/I came home to face . . . This place needs me here to start/This place is the beat of my heart") that hits the mark.
Closing track "Blue" features a haunting guest vocal turn by punk icon Patti Smith - just like "E-Bow the Letter" from "New Adventures in Hi-Fi." It can't compare to the original - one of the very best songs in the band's deep catalogue - but serves as a promising end to the album. It doesn't fall neatly into the "rocker" or "mid-tempo" categories; Stipe delivers speedy spoken word over staticky soundscapes as Smith adds to the drama.
And so "Collapse Into Now" is eminently listenable. But how often will you actually listen to it? "Collapse" is yet another album that makes a good first impression before disappearing into the place where most bands' 15th albums disappear. In a couple years, when it's time for No. 16, "Collapse" will be a faint memory, and it will be time to talk about R.E.M.'s rebirth. Yet again.
Recommended tracks: "Discoverer," "Oh My Heart," "Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter"