30 Years in the Making: R.E.M.’s New Sound

R.E.M.’s latest record, Collapse into Now, continues the high-energy rock of the band’s excellent 2008 release, Accelerate, peppered with other musical elements from the band’s back catalogue.

Collapse into Now has a lot of hype to live up to. The album was partially recorded at the legendary Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin, Germany, which gave us classic records from David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and U2. As if that wasn’t enough to get fans excited, as the band was recording they likened the sound of the record to that of their 1992 classic, the folky Automatic for the People.

Collapse into Now landed somewhere in between Automatic for the People and Accelerate. On songs like “Oh My Heart,” “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I,” and especially the harmony-driven “Überlin,” R.E.M. delivers. As promised, they rekindle the folk that made them huge with hits like “Losing My Religion” and “Drive.” These songs mark the return of the mandolin, organ, and the accordion that dominated Automatic for the People. These songs display R.E.M. at its stripped-back and melancholy best since Automatic was released in 1992.

Other songs on the album evoke different music eras in R.E.M.’s history. The piano ballad “Walk it Back,” with its atmospheric strings and reverb-laden guitar, fits in nicely with the band’s late-90’s electronic experiments. And the closing track “Blue” is a blatant re-hashing of New Adventures… single “E-Bow the Letter”: the songs are similar in their spoken-word vocals, ambient instrumentation, and a guest lyric from Patti Smith.

However, the real winners on Collapse into Now are the rockers. Much of the album continues the high-energy rock of Accelerate. Opener “Discoverer” kicks off the album with a jagged guitar line, before roaring into a muscular chorus. “All the Best” pounds away with more loud drums and guitars, before climaxing in a fury of harmony vocals set to a pulsating beat. And “That Someone is You” and “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” have the band sounding like it’s 1983 all over again, featuring the Byrds-y jangle and sweet harmony that the band first became known for.

Overall, Collapse into Now solidifies a new era for R.E.M. that began with Accelerate. This era (in contrast to the band’s cryptic garage-rock 80’s, folky 90’s, and experimental electronic 00’s) boasts big guitars and drums, tons of studio experimentation, and just enough folk to keep fans sane. The songs show a band revitalized and excited to be making music, and optimistic about the future. Collapse into Now is a fine example of the music R.E.M. wants to be making in 2011, which (along with Accelerate) represents the best music they’ve made since 1992.

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