don't you tell me how i feel.

Southern comfort by Steele
March 16, 2011, 1:00 am
Filed under: comeback?, New music, Shit I love

 In 1992, the year grunge exploded, my main man Michael Stipe opened Automatic for the People with the haunting intonation, “Hey, kids, rock and roll/nobody tells you where to go.” It was a revelatory, almost punk-rock declaration that set the tone for the album and firmly established the guys of R.E.M., who were then in their early 30s, as the elder statesmen of alternative rock.

On Collapse into Now, R.E.M.’s strongest album since 2001’s underrated Reveal, Stipe’s opening salvo is “Hey baby – this is not a challenge.” And for the first time in a while, you almost believe it. Collapse has a loose, effortless sound that’s been missing from their records for some time, like they found their way back to that sweet spot nestled somewhere between the Beach Boys and the Velvet Underground.

I have an intensely personal relationship with R.E.M.’s music, one that began a full 20 years ago, so this record makes me feel pretty happy for these guys. They must know how good it is, how much more consistent and cohesive and striking than other recent releases. Wistful, melancholy, accordion and mandolin-soaked tracks “Uberlin” and “Oh My Heart” wouldn’t sound out of place on R.E.M.’s best albums. “Mine Smell Like Honey” and “Discoverer” make great use of guitarist Mike Mills’ essential backup vocals. One of my favorites is “It Happened Today,” which quickly rises above a cringeworthy rhyme in the first verse (that would be “a parable” and “a terrible”) and builds to a soaring, handclapping thump of a folk ballad, reminiscent of Eddie Vedder’s excellent Into the Wild soundtrack. And wait, who’s that dude caterwauling and moaning at the end there? Oh, right, Eddie Vedder. That explains it.

This is not to say Collapse is anywhere close to perfect. Several of the songs seem like filler (don’t get me started on the one featuring Peaches). Stipe’s shift over the years from the nonsense of his early lyrics to a more direct, emotionally expressive style has produced beautiful writing, but it also means we have to deal with him being a little corny here and there. Musically, there’s nothing groundbreaking here either.

I know that R.E.M. will probably never make an innovative, or truly great, album again. Their contribution to the modern landscape has been heard in everyone from Nirvana to Pavement to the National, and as they move through middle age, collapsing into now, their legacy is secure. The important thing is that they finally sound like themselves again.

And that must be a relief, one that is palpable in the the gorgeously artsy “Blue.” “I want it all,” Stipe sing-chants over Patti Smith’s dirgelike backing vocals. “I want sensational, irresistible. This is my time – and I am thrilled to be alive.”


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