Among the many other elements worth exploring coming into Collapse into Now, the big question is wondering just how much R.E.M. knew this was going to be their final album. The release of the album did not post-date any worries of the band’s disbandment – read the reviews of the time to see that – and the news of the end of R.E.M. wouldn’t take place until six months later. And that announcement would come with a wave of tributes and public upset; even not being a fan of the band at the time, I remember just how big the outpouring of affection was from people around both sides of the Atlantic.
But was that news always there in that final product? Well, by nature of it being a surprise first impressions don’t seem that way. In terms of send-offs it doesn’t have the clearness of “in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make” (and, yes, Abbey Road is the last Beatles album). But members of the band have suggested the signs were all there in some way, and with the benefit of distance and hindsight there is certainly a level of self-reflection of their career that isn’t there before.
The first thing to consider is how much musical self-quotation there is on Collapse into Now. On the most common level the music on this album is a reaction to their previous album Accelerate. That record was direct, with a concentrated sound and ultimate political intent. Here we are dealing with a record that has a lush and more expansive sound (also one with no compression. Hurray!), and lyrics dealing with more personal, introspective topics. But that expansiveness and personal nature is where the self-quotation comes in. First is in instrumentation. as well as the run-over of sounds and brevity from Accelerate, there are the mid tempo acoustic ballads of Automatic for the People, the blown out feedback sounds of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, rock anthems with the melodic commonalities of Green and Document and even the trusted mandolin from Out of Time (though that did make a cameo in Accelerate). Whilst that could normally signal lack of creative intent, here the sound has been carefully cultivated to a singular tone, one that furthers into the self analysis and exploration. Although if I do have a complaint, it would be how that self quotation doesn’t extend into anything pre-Document (i.e. nothing that didn’t make platinum sales).
And that exploration of their journey is also prevalent in the lyrics of Michael Stipe. There are reflective lines about his own position as an artist – and showing them how it’s done – that recall albums as late as Accelerate (“the storm didn’t kill me, and the government changed”). The guest artists, both that R.E.M has inspired and that inspired R.E.M, accentuate the idea of the band reflecting on their place in popular culture. The title itself makes one recall the first lines “this world is collapsing” that introduced Out of Tim. I believe this is one of the reasons that the two sides of the album are called X-Axis and Y-Axis; to accentuate Stipe’s world.
And in the moments before that world’s collapse, there is also a lot of exploration of that world. In the first post for Murmur I noted how much that album is defined by motion, by the characters changing places and locations. And throughout R.E.M’s whole discography this motion and movement has carried from album to album: the settilngs and worlds of the I.R.S records; the on-the-road country mentality of Out of Time; the “Drive” and river finding of Automatic for the People; the weary travels of New Adventures in Hi-Fi and the movement motifs of every album in the post-Berry era (at least three were named for that movement). And where Accelerate stopped its music so suddenly, as though Stipe’s universe has abruptly stopped it’s movements, Collapse into Now acts as the contraction back into the centre. When Stipe’s universe finally stops moving and, as will be noted, when it restarts again.
Exploration is definitely a key component to the album’s first song, “Discoverer”, yet it also touches within R.E.M. dreamworld in lines like I wake up dreaming saffron/turmeric and brass”. The music clearly reflects both these states, with the guitars displaying both the forcefulness that characterised Accelerate but also a gradually growing encompassing sound, thanks in no small part to one of the best guitar lines that Peter Buck has concocted in quite some time. By the end the music builds with Stipe’s confidence, with the sturdy rhythm work from Mill’s bass and Rieflin’s drums accompanying the lines that echo the sentiment of Collapse into Now: “But it was what it was/Let’s all get on with it now”.
That sentiment also seems to be behind “All the Best”, which I guess in retrospect does have the “in the end…” line to give people clues about the band’s intentions, with lines like “it is just like me to overstate my welcome” and Stipe’s morale calling: I think I’ll sing it and rhyme/I’ll give it one more time/I’ll show the kids how to do it/Fine, fine, fine”. All the while the music here shows the kids with the high paced sound they had been building on Accelerate with overpowering drums and guitars that just keep propelling forwards (though this their is better production by Jacknife Lee).
But after burst of energy, “Uberlin” comes in with an acoustic led sound more akin to Automatic for the People; if that couldn’t be clearer, Stipe begins his verses with “heys” like those found on “Drive”. But the song itself is primarily inspired by their time recording material in Berlin – which I think we’ve established is Mecca for alternative rock acts – and Stipe’s paints a scene that captures both the mundane travels to work and the grandeur of space together showing, like “Drive”, a certain disconnect from reality (“My imagination run away”) but an incentive to carry on. Of all the songs of Stipe’s “inspirational” period, this is one of the greatest, with maybe the best melody on the whole album. The horn section in particular adds some poignancy to the proceedings layering together in a similar manner as Stipe lead and Mills emotive harmonies.
That horn section is all the more prominent in the introduction to “Oh My Heart”, before snapping back into a tune that is like “Houston” through the lens of an Out of Time song (mandolin, my old friend!). The structures of the two songs are very similar, and Stipe references that song with the aforementioned storm line, so this leads to a song that is the first and last obvious sequel to (though there have been echoes and hints before). And here Stipe looks upon the city with an aged paranoia, coming “home to city half erased” and facing both his past and future in the process. And he does so in a beautiful tune that evokes something unfamiliar with a beautiful accordion line playing, with the mandolin, something both gorgeous yet foreign (European) sounding, strange for a band who are seen as so “American”.
This leads into “It Happened Today” another contemplative highlight on such a contemplative album. At first glances the lyrics seem to be among his most simple, with the blunt infer to “a terrible thing” and cheers of hip hip hooray. But the terrible thing in question is the death of Stipe’s friend and cult Athens’ artist Vic Chestnutt, who’s life story of obscurity and illness is ultimately very depressing. And through the depression Stipe creates one of his most uplifting pieces, with “We’ll leave the allegory/To another Bible story/Out of deference/Defiance, the choice” a seeming protest to keep things simple. The return of the bright mandolin melodies and horns creates a unifying force, one matched with the final wordless cries of Stipe, Mills and a well placed cameo from Eddie Vedder’s always imitated but never equalled register.
“Every Day is Yours to Win” is admittedly a less effective uplifting song than its predecessor, but it is a great closer to the X-Side and a greater tune than the greeting card sentiment of the title would have you believe. Part of that is because of the clean appegiated melody from Peter Buck, which combines with continual toms from Rieflin and the chimes of what sounds like a xylophone to create the sensation of floating to descriptions of this walk and talk. This is not one of Stipe’s strongest lyrical performances, but lines like “And if you buy that/I’ve got a bridge for you” show some trademark humour, and the lyrics of travel “Every day is new” ends the first half with both a graceful fadeout and a continuation to the journey head.
Y-Side unfortunately begins with at first sounds like one of the lighter songs on the album with the grossly-titled “Mine Smell like Honey” (I get the reference Stipe, but come on). But it then does emerge to have some album highlights, with rip roaring guitars from Buck, a sound that is like the chugging guitars of Monster cleansed with the sunny nature of Reveal, and the melody of the chorus which is unbelievably catchy despite being essentially nonsense. Also Stipe again shows signs of the end to come, particularly in that second verse which for cases of clarity I will post in full:
If the end comes faster than we had expected
And predictions lead us to the final fall
If the flowers crack the grave
And leave the pattern of the pavement
I can hear you shouting over it all.
After that rocker R.E.M moves back into something slower and more explorative with the aptly titled “Walk it Back”. The piano melody calls to mind gospel influences that the band had not really played with in around eighteen years, and the other instruments circle around that central piano line with mid-tempo motions that come in peaks and waves. Meanwhile lines like “Reverse and rewind/Erase and revise/And try to start again” are not just personal reflections on events that Stipe and the person he is talking cannot walk back from, but also a great foreshadow for the finale of the record.
It says something when I can say “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” is one of the weakest songs of this album, because this song is still an utter blast. Mills bass is strong and beefy, Rieflin hits his toms with great aplomb and Buck’s guitar melody is simply such fun to listen to. The counterpoints and harmonies also provide a great touch to the tune, and despite not knowing much about her own work this is one of those turns that makes me want to check their material. I guess ultimately I can’t deal with the songs silliness in contrast to the rest of the album (a problem I also have somewhat with “Mine Smell Like Honey”); there is something about the youthful abandon combined with “you’ve got a lot to learn” that ultimately gives this carefree break some intent, but I guess Stipe saying he is “not a hater” an “an alligator” is just something that I can’t really get past (buzzkill, I know). Also, is this the first time in an R.E.M. song where someone actively says they “feel like a contradiction” instead of showing that with contradictions?
The weakest song of Collapse into Now is probably “That Someone Is You.” In theory I should like this one, as it combines the punkier tendencies of their really early material with the brevity and blast of their previous record. But unlike their last album the shortness of this song (less than two mintues) doesn’t really do it any favours, as although the guitar tones and playing is very energetic it ends up feeling really unsubstantial. And in terms of movie imagery, this is no “Monty Got a Raw Deal”.
The next song though, “Me Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando I” does use its iconoclast imagery to great effect. Such as in “Monty” where Stipe relates to Montgomery Clifts struggles and tragic Hollywood narrative, here Stipe looks as Marlon Brando as both the icon of Hollywood and perhaps even as a symbol of decline in quality, with lines like “I’m not sure where to place myself here, friend/Am I upon the gold rings and stand?” seeing Stipe contemplate his own position amongst the rock greats. And it does so with the most calming melody of the entire record, with Mills counterpoints that really help accentuate the dream feel of this conversation, along with the bright mandolin and piano combination merging with soaring guitars and strings.
And in this meditative state R.E.M. moves on to the final song on the album, and in effect the final song of their career (though there would be one or two in Greatest Hits compilations), “Blue”. Like Derek Jarman’s movie this use of Blue is of a similar sensation, as both piece of art seem to come from the etymological roots of Blue “the thing you see after the brightest flash possible”. From that position of moving back into the brightest flash, Stipe discusses in rapid succession his life in blinding flashes until they almost collapse into each other. Many people compared this to “E-Bow the Letter”, with the feedback ridden guitar sound, the poetry like cadence of Stipe’s delivery and the appearance of punk-goddess Patti Smith. But a noticeable difference that makes this great in its own right is just how much Stipes voice sounds not like his singing voice at all. In fact, this is really the only time I can recall him speaking as he would in interviews. He sticks with this so much that he gives Patti Smith the actual vocal performance on the album, a testament to both the confidence and generosity of the band, but also a means to meet his goals in the line “I want Whitman proud. Patti Lee proud. My brothers proud. My sisters proud. I want me. I want it all. I want sensational.” And as he ended New Adventures with “20th Century, go to sleep”, here he asks it to come back here, to “collapse into now”, as though he is both fulfilling the wishes and retorting to those who thought the band should have ended after the departure of Berry. And with that final call and beautiful farewell R.E.M. fades out, into the now…
…until they don’t. Because the album actually ends with a coda that links us back to the beginning, performing another refrain of “Discoverer”. The effects this has as the end to R.E.M’s career is twofold. First, it allows each member of the band to have a final curtain call at the same, with the final notes of Bill Rieflin, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe to ring out almost simultaneous, as the end to a unified whole. The first is to demonstrate how, this is in fact, not the end. In a Finnegans Wake style (another final work from an artist that doesn’t really end) It shows the work as a permanent dream state, and like the way a disc skips back – or a music playlist shuffles – the end of the band does not mean the end of the music. It will always be there: to explore; to move; to make discoveries; to dream on.
Or that is what it means to a person who, up until one month ago, was an amateur to the world of R.E.M. Now I have explored and travelled with them as their music has embarked on their own travels, and through that have come to appreciate their effective on the popular landscape of music, but more importantly love the mountains of great music they crafted along the way. And if we now must collapse, then at least the band ended, if not on one of their highest points, then definitely on their own terms which encompass everything we have come to know of the band. It is the end of R.E.M as I now know it and – if you will please permit me the obvious pun – I feel fine.
What did you think, though?
R.E.M Album Rankings (finalised)
- Automatic for the People
- Lifes Rich Pageant
- New Adventures in Hi-Fi
- Fables of the Reconstruction
- Chronic Town (EP)
- Out of Time
- Collapse into Now
- Dead Letter Office
- Around the Sun