REM’s Collapse Into Now: A Track-By-Track Review

Ben Hewitt gives the track-by-track treatment to REM's 15th studio album, Collapse Into Now


Hark, hear that snaking, slithering guitar and those crunching chords! ‘Discoverer’ blasts off with pounding drums, pristine production and a melody that fleetingly recalls ‘Finest Worksong’ from Document (an overlooked part of their discography, perhaps, given that it was followed by the monster successes of Out Of Time and Automatic For The People). It’s a welcome confirmation that those tepid days that produced Around The Sun – a record so soporific that some backstreet chemists still flog it under the counter as a remedy for chronic insomnia – are truly over, and that the foot hasn’t been lifted off the pedal after 2008’s Accelerate. Lyrically, though, Stipe seems in brighter spirits than his last outing; in contrast to the barbed insults of ‘Living Well Is The Best Revenge’ and its wounded charges such as "You set me up like a lamb to the slaughter," here he claims to have "never felt so calm" and that "I don’t have to be afraid, I don’t have to feel stupid". A positive start, in every sense of the word.

All The Best

Despite the seemingly upbeat title, some of Stipe’s optimism wanes a little here – this is more of an acerbic sign off to a soured relationship (although there’s scant personal information revealed) than an act of well-wishing. "It’s just like me to overstay my welcome," he spits with a hint of bitterness, as words are rattled off furiously and lines overflow, bumping into one another like on 2003’s ‘Bad Day’. It’s less polished sonically than ‘Discoverer’, too, but the fuzzy layers of guitar add some extra bite. And even if we’re in more sardonic territory with the self-loathing references to "my Quasimodo-heart" and the half-cathartic, half-sulky parting riposte of "I just had to get that off my chest", it all culminates in a satisfyingly frenzied finish that has enough rugged energy to neutralize any potential mawkishness.


The pace slackens for the first time as REM rake over some old ground and make use of soft acoustic twanging and delicate finger picking reminiscent of the gentler material from Automatic For The People and, more pertinently, Out Of Time. But balladry is inevitable on any REM album, and the lulling melody more than compensates for any downwards shift in momentum. Some of Stipe’s words do chafe a little – vague admissions of inadequacy ("I am not complete") jostle with woolly imagery ("I am chasing the stars… I will make it through the day, and the day will become the night") – but there’s something about the way his voice soars over the choruses refrain of "I know, I know that this is not changing" that feels extremely comforting, even if it’s not saying anything particularly profound.

Oh My Heart

Given the litany of political pot-shots on Accelerate, it’s somewhat surprising it’s taken until the fourth track for Stipe to turn his lyrical gaze outwards and mine global issues for material. Yet ‘Oh My Heart’ manages to stay away from the grand soapbox statements of, say, ‘Man-Sized Wreath’ and instead focuses on the human aspect of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. A brassy introduction gives way to a waltzing tempo as Stipe bemoans the destruction of "a city-half erased" and haunted by the memories of "ghosts, trees and buildings". Ultimately it’s less about the wreckage of the storm, though, and more about the overcoming of adversity. "This place needs me here to start/ This place is the beat of my heart," sings Stipe, while hoping that "the good of this world/ May see me through". It’s tempting to interpret this is as a sequel-of-sorts to ‘Houston’ from the last album, too, with that songs Katrina-survivor finally coming home to confront the devastation and "face what we faced".

It Happened Today

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder pops up on backing vocals – wouldn’t Kurt Cobain be turning in his grave? – for another slow number in which electric guitars are eschewed for pretty mandolin flourishes. It all seems somewhat incongruous to Stipe’s caustic delivery, though, which veers from the hyperbolic ("This is not a fable, this is a terrible thing") to the heavily sarcastic ("It happened today, hooray/ It happened today, hip-hip hooray"). Even the handclaps in the background appear to be almost mocking the singer’s misery, but at around the two-minute mark the clouds disperse and some sunlight shines through. Stipe’s vocal is at its most-pure sounding yet in his elongated and repeated sighs of "Ahhhh", which punctuate the track’s extended fade-out. After the heart-on-sleeve sentiment of the preceding song, this one’s a lot more opaque and harder to read.

Every Day Is Yours To Win

The track most likely to be embraced wholeheartedly by all REM fans, and also one of the most interesting on the album. Boasting a twinkling, starry score and with Stipe’s vocal drenched in reverb and echo, it feels somewhat like treading barefoot through a dream until the reverie is broken slightly by the introduction of soaring guitar halfway through. The nursery-rhyme like quality of the words adds to the lullaby aesthetic, too, with lines such as "With the walk and the talk, and the tick-tock clock" and "I can’t tell a lie, it’s not all cherry pie/ But it’s all there waiting for you". Throw in the simple refrain of "Hey yeah", and you’ve got a sure-fire anthem just waiting to be unleashed.

Mine Smells Like Honey

Arguably the most straightforward rock out on the whole album – and certainly the most energetic since ‘All The Best’ – this is quicker, fuzzier and offers a soaring key change just before the chorus kicks in to boot. All the ingredients of ‘classic’ REM are present… so why does it feel so flat? Perhaps it has more to do with following ‘Every Day Is Yours To Win’ than any shortcomings of its own, but this feels rather by-the-numbers and throwaway in comparison.

Walk It Back

Making the inclusion of ‘Mine Smells Like Honey’ seem even odder, ‘Walk It Back’ is an odd and conflicted beast: musically, it ditches the guitars for piano and a jaunty, shuffling tempo, but lyrically Stipe sounds tired and defeated once more, especially with his helpless and unanswered question of "Where would I go?". Even his larynx seems torn between two options, managing to sound both brow-beaten and as rich-as-molasses at the same time. Made all the more charming due to its inherent contradictions, it’s one of Collapse Into Now’s most vulnerable and affecting moments.

Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter

Just when it seemed things might be getting a bit po-faced, here comes a nonsensical song title to up the dumb-but-fun quota. And nothing screams enjoyably daft louder than Peaches, who’s roped in to provide some extra vocals/screeching. Appropriately, Buck comes up trumps with one of the album’s most unfettered guitar solos, while Stipe indulges in some stream-of-consciousness gibberish as he yelps "I feel like an alligator coming up the escalator". Which doesn’t actually mean anything, of course – but we suspect that’s sort of the point.

That Someone Is You

One of the shortest tracks on the album – and at under two minutes long, probably ranking amongst the briefest in their entire canon – the choppy, thrashy guitar blends the awkward pangs of unrequited love and "waiting for someone else to make the first move" with a bizarrely impressive rhyming of "Sharon Stone Casino" and "Scarface Al Pacino". It’s another straightforward rock-song, but unlike ‘Mine Smells Like Honey’, its taut and tight, without an ounce of flab in sight.

Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I

The mandolin is back again for the washed-out penultimate track, which sees Stipe push his voice to his limits as he strains for the higher notes and indulge in some more Hollywood name-dropping. Quite what the relationship is between the singer and the late actor is unclear, but the lyric is wistful as he implores someone to "Lay me down, down, down, down" and "live and dream about the heroes". Like ‘That Someone Is You’, its been stripped of any potential excesses; unlike ‘That Someone Is You’, it’s gentle and dignified, and the closest REM get to bare-bones on the whole record with drums that are brushed rather than banged, and a gently swelling organ that lingers in the background.


So Collapse Into Now culminates with ‘Blue’, a truly bizarre closer and the most experimental that REM have been for quite some time. Rather than any musical contemporary, Stipe’s words sound more like Ginsberg and the Beat generation as he reels of lines of stream-of-consciousness observations that start with isolated self-pity ("Halloween, I’d had enough to drink to have my own party") and end with the weird outburst of "Cinderella boy, you lost your shoe/ Cinderella boy, your carriage awaits". The ragged, slicing guitar line that begin the song verges on almost melodramatic; minutes later, its own histrionics are undercut by the introduction of sparse and brittle piano, and some odd scraping and squeaking noises cluttering up the background. Patti Smith also contributes the album’s final guest appearance (and in doing so, performs with the band for the second time after her turn on ‘E-Bow The Letter’ from 1996), but she’s almost relegated to secondary attraction. And rather fittingly, it all ends with a softer, slower reprise of ‘Discovery’, bringing the constant see-sawing between hope and resignation, and optimism and pessimism, full circle. Perhaps more radical moments like this wouldn’t have gone amiss, but Collapse Into Now is the sound of a band revisiting the ground that they know best – and at this point in their career, it’s probably better to be safe than sorry.

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