If they hung up the spurs today, R.E.M. would be remembered as absolute legends. They are already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have crafted some of the most vital albums ever to be put under the umbrella of indie rock (including a stunning four year period that saw the release of Green, Out of Time and Automatic for the People). Ever since the departure of drummer Bill Berry (during which time the band has continued on as a trio), their albums have been interesting but flawed, and though their 2008 album Accelerate was something of a return to form, it still paled in comparison to their greatest work. What do the men from Athens, Georgia have left to prove?
Plenty, actually. Their just-released 15th album Collapse Into Now has really resonated with critics precisely because the band makes a case for its continued relevance. "Collapse Into Now is the first truly messy album R.E.M. have made in 10 years," wrote Rob Sheffield in a glowing review in Rolling Stone. "Collapse Into Now touches on all their favorite tricks: punk raves, stately ballads, piano, accordion and the most mandolin they've put in one place since 'Losing My Religion.' ... They long ago passed the point where they're beloved just for continuing to exist. But on Collapse Into Now, they sound like they'd rather be a band than a legend, which must be why they keep pushing on."
Martin Aston of the BBC also seemed thrilled by the vitality of R.E.M.'s new album. "Radiohead should be so lucky at this stage. Even if a lyric sheet on a R.E.M. album doesn't feel right, Stipe's words are alluring, enigmatic and provocative, free of rhetoric (the Hurricane Katrina aftermath of 'Oh My Heart' notwithstanding)," he wrote. "Unlike Accelerate, Collapse into Now is also free of a planned response to a predecessor. It's as varied and deep as previous R.E.M. classics."
Another smitten review came from EMusic's J. Edward Keyes. "Where 2008's lean, snarling Accelerate functioned mainly as a defibrillator, Collapse is more measured; it's diverse and dignified, a controlled but emphatic throat-clearing from the elder statesmen to remind you that they're still in the room, and they can hear you talking s---," he wrote. "Collapse is the last album in the group's mega-million Warner Brothers contract, and that fact, coupled with their puzzling decision not to tour in support of a record that seems written to be played live, implies that Buck, Mills and Stipe have started to think of the group as a distraction rather than a going concern. Think, then, of Collapse as their elegant credit-montage, hitting all the familiar scenes along the way — oblong, counterintuitive rockers, vulnerable soul-searchers and, occasionally, ballads of arresting beauty."
However, not all critics are feeling as warmly. The Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot thought Collapse Into Now sounds more like a band treading water than a group rediscovering their greatness. "In the tradition of rock legends rehashing their best moves on mid-career studio albums — the Rolling Stones' Some Girls in 1978 or U2's aptly named All That You Can't Leave Behind in 2000 — Collapse Into Now is an echo of past glories," Kot wrote. "If nothing else it reminds us that R.E.M. is fully aware of what it did best and when."
Ben Ratliff of The New York Times also accused R.E.M. of going through the motions. "After a few strong initial tracks, much of the new album feels undernourished," he wrote. "Not bare or messy — that might be interesting — just banal." Stephen M. Deusner's review in Paste expressed a similar sentiment, noting that R.E.M.'s rich history might actually be working against them no matter what they do. "There's little mystery to these songs — nothing unknown or unresolved or open-ended, which is precisely what keeps so many fans going back to their older material," he wrote. "We listen to 'So. Central Rain' and 'The One I Love' and 'Drive' to try to make sense of them, and Stipe seems to sing them as if he is doing the same. On Collapse, the sense is pre-made before you even hear the songs."
Still, the warm reviews outweighed the cold shoulders, and the majority of R.E.M. enthusiasts seem to be seeing eye to eye with Josh Modell of Spin. "[On Collapse Into Now], they discover the glow of middle age, warmly acknowledging the past — hello again, Peter Buck's mandolin — while realizing that the present can feel just as comforting," he wrote. "The sober, pretty 'Uberlin' sounds like a happier cousin to 'Drive.' Twinkling ballad 'Every Day Is Yours to Win' updates 'Everybody Hurts' for the other side of despair, when optimism seeps back in. 'Discoverer' and 'All the Best' deliver sexy crunch for Monster fans. It's R.E.M.'s many faces, collapsing into now."
What do you think of R.E.M.'s new album? Let us know in the comments!