In the leadup to the release of R.E.M.’s last studio album, 2008’s Accelerate, much of the hype was based around the premise that it would be heralded as a “return to rock” for the alt-rock deities. And it was, purely in a technical sense, but when’s the last time a band consciously going back to its roots wasn’t a disaster? Accelerate fell prey to the same pitfall that most back-to-basics albums do, namely the simple fact that you cannot purposely recapture chemistry that used to be there on its own.
Fortunately, R.E.M. themselves seemed to realize this, because on their fifteenth studio album, Collapse Into Now, the group has stopped pushing against itself and started concentrating on just writing good songs. Traces of past R.E.M. albums are all over Collapse—“Oh My Heart” is straight off Automatic for the People, while “Mine Smell Like Honey” recalls the fire of their I.R.S. albums—but these similarities never feel forced or intentional. These are old tricks for them, but these old tricks are just bits and pieces of who they are.
Since the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills have largely sounded like a band struggling to find an identity. Collapse Into Now marks the first time in the last decade or so that I get the impression they’ve started just doing what comes naturally to them. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but R.E.M. are still a pretty great rock band when they want to be. “Walk it Back” and “Every Day is Yours to Win” are gorgeous on their own terms, and harder-rocking material like “Discoverer” and “Alligator/Aviator/Autopilot/Antimatter” comes off like a band comfortable with who they are, rather than one trying to be something they’re not anymore.
After a certain point, rock lifers like R.E.M. can’t really help but to sound like themselves. U2 reached this point a decade ago, and Pearl Jam arrived there more recently. Collapse may well be R.E.M.’s first true late-career record. If it marks the start of this band churning out a solid album in this vein every two to three years, would anybody complain? What makes Collapse Into Now so satisfying is that it isn’t a return to form so much as a realization that the band R.E.M. are now isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be.