R.E.M., rediscovery and collapsing into 2019
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The past few days have been fairly regimented. As 2019 starts, I wake up, get myself ready for the world, and before anyone on the outside can see me, I have my headphones on. And with few exceptions, it starts with an utterly triumphant guitar riff, an irregular bass line and Michael Stipe calling out, “Hey baby / this is not a challenge.”
It’s “Discoverer” from Collapse Into Now, and it’s become something of a mantra and a rallying call that has been repeating in my brain all week. I wasn’t looking for something like that with the arbitrary circling of the sun complete, but that’s how it worked out.
I can’t even remember what got me listening to R.E.M. again in the past few days. It could have been as simple as a scroll through my library and realizing that I hadn’t listened to them in a while. But one pass through 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi and I was again feeling that emotional tug. I can clearly point to a few times in my life where I would’ve been utterly lost without this band, and this felt like a time where I could call on them.
As with those other times, I jumped in, both feet flattened and ill-prepared to absorb the impact, and that’s where I’ll likely stay for a few weeks. In the past, I’ve retreated for two or three years after this. In my own inexact tracking, it looks like it might’ve been November 2013 when I last spent enough time with R.E.M. to register on my own listening calendar, which is ridiculous. — I spent a couple of days on Whitesnake more recently than that. R.E.M is never totally absent, since I never really stray too far away from New Adventures in Hi-Fi, along with a random track from albums like Lifes Rich Pageant or Monster, but that’s not the kind of dedication their music deserves.
So there’s a lot to get through and a lot to rediscover. There was a trip through Automatic for the People and the horrifying realization that “Ignoreland” has become more relevant through the years, rather than retreating into the time capsule of a backwards time never to be repeated. There’s Murmur, which staked territory between the worlds of new wave, post-punk and classic rock and took the first step towards something that would live out all on its own for decades. There was even some time with Up, which I hadn’t listened to much since high school, when it was this brave new step in a post-Bill Berry world. Now, it’s a decent album that didn’t necessarily deserve glowing praise, and certainly not any hardcore disdain.
All these roads lead to Collapse Into Now, their final album and recorded with such in mind. As stated in various interviews by the band, they knew following the tour for 2008’s Accelerate that they wanted to make one more album, and make it a great one, and then call it a day. They wouldn’t go down in the shadow of a weak album (à la 2004’s Around the Sun), a band member’s departure (Berry’s 1997 exit, which only took place on his stipulation that they would not break up) or some other unforeseen tragedy (still not present, thankfully). If a band that reached the levels they reached operated with more integrity, I’d like to listen to that band.
I should have been listening closer to this one in the recent past, because after about two or three turns through Collapse Into Now, I realized that I had breezed past a classic when it was first released in 2011. My memory is of listening to it, thinking it was good and, apparently, immediately moving on. I didn’t even remember that Eddie Vedder made an appearance in the coda of “It Happened Today.” I know 2011 was a mildly weird year, but I don’t know what would’ve kept me from recognizing the brilliance of this album. I should’ve been blasting this out of my windows all summer.
As “Discoverer” winds up, “All the Best” blasts through with all of the urgency of anything from their I.R.S. days but with an older and more modern sensibility. It has all the energy of punk but the benefit of wisdom, especially when Stipe, always aware of his place and stature, asks the listener to “tell me which part of my story, baby, stuck.” “Überlin” perfectly captures the sensation of wandering a new city alone, that combination of routine and discovery that lasts for so long until something changes it.
Routine was never a clean word with R.E.M. For so long their albums were notable for how different each was from the one before it. Here, even the the moments that recall their early albums move quickly away from being a strict genre exercise. The quick mandolin in “Oh My Heart” isn’t signaling another “Losing My Religion” but a mature meditation on returning to a destroyed home. “Every Day Is Yours to Win” could have been at home on Automatic for the People were it not for the real-time acerbity built in. Even the short burst of punk on “That Someone Is You” is separated by just one song from “Blue,” one final experiment from the band, augmented by Patti Smith and anchored by Stipe’s distorted, spoken-word delivery that, in retrospect, sounds a lot like a guy summing up his past and looking forward to a new future without the anchor of his band by his side. If Accelerate was a conscious (and welcome) look to the past, Collapse Into Now would be one final declaration, another bold left turn in a career marked and made memorable by them.
Except it doesn’t just end there. In the feedback drone as “Blue” fades away, the first song reprises with a triumphant guitar riff and chants of “Discoverer!” It’s the kind of full-circle move that helps bring the record together. On vinyl, it sends the listener lunging for the turntable to flip the record and start anew. In the digital age, it just keeps playing, a discovery of “Discoverer” and 11 more songs that comfortably live alongside any of their prior catalogued gems.
And that’s where I find myself as I write this. “Blue” has conveniently wrapped up again, and the band is blazing forward again as the album begins. Peter Buck’s guitars are half jangling, half biting. Michael Stipe is chanting. Mike Mills is driving and harmonizing under all of it. It’s loud and beautiful and energizing and everything it should be and a little more. And I’m going to keep listening and keep letting it repeat. In that way, it’s an incredible final act without finality. It’s a locked groove at the end of the discography, repeating and howling and never sounding flat or dated. Fittingly, it’s just like their best stuff. So I’m going to keep listening.
Jan. 7, 2019
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com