It’s one thing for a band to cop the performance style of R.E.M. and make something half-assed as a result. It’s something else, entirely, when the band whose style people are copping to make crappy albums are copping the copping of those bands to make something supremely shitty. R.E.M. are supposed to be this influential band that was a bastion of pre-indie rock (and they are), but on their newest album, Collapse Into Now, they sound downright amateurish, stripping the elements that made them unique of all pretense. Not a ballast can be found on Collapse Into Now to keep it from preening into a big dumb STATEMENT of an album.
So where to start? Music: Collapse Into Now suffers from the same ailment that struck The Hold Steady’s most recent album, Heaven Is Whenever, in that the lack of variety in the guitars makes it sound far too dense and monolithic. The guitar and bass work of Peter Buck and Mike Millis, respectively, is decent, but the production on their instruments is nauseating in its lack of dynamics.
Lyrics: Oh boy, here we go. Never have I ever heard such a decent album bogged down by such awful lyrics. Michael Stipe has written some fantastic songs in the past, but, on Collapse Into Now, he seems to take himself so seriously, he not only believes he can get away with reciting inane poetry like, “I cannot tell a lie / It’s not all cherry pie” and “This is not a parable / This is a terrible,” but believes that it is high-end art to be analyzed and admired. Over a pseudo-shanty built upon accordion and acoustic guitar, Stipe breathes solemnly, “The kids have a new take / A new take on faith,” with the utmost intention of having you hang on his every word, but that heavy-handedness is laughable to even consider taking seriously. “Mine Smell Like Honey” pairs inane lyrics with an even more inane song title, “Walk It Back” tries and fails miserably to form a chorus around a clumsy phrase and “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” is just as bad as its title would suggest.
Collapse Into Now even has somewhat of an arc of shitty lyrics, climaxing on final track, “Blue,” by far the worst song on the album. In it, Stipe lets loose in a five-minute, distorted, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, slinging the type of non sequitur vomit that could only come from someone who doesn’t think anyone would be smart enough to read into a single line or phrase. “Yellow circus left the stakes a broken ropes world’s useless mug / The ties that bind, ha ha / I can be a bad poet / Street poet / Shit poet / Kind poet too,” and he goes on like this for a few more stanzas before Peter Buck coos a soft refuge, but not for long, as we’re thrust back into the fray of Stipe’s pretentious psyche. That’s right, pretentious. “Blue” is so awful, it could make you lose faith in what R.E.M. has become over the past decade. It confronts you, directly, with the possibility that the band may believe significantly more than just their own hype.
It is in this regard that Collapse Into Now sounds like the work of an R.E.M. cover band, because it masterfully takes the notable aspects of the group and exaggerates them into agonizing caricatures. When Stipe sings in a lower register, he has a habit of trailing off his notes, making them sound, intentionally or not, much more poignant than any logic garnered from his lyrics could justify. He sounds like what my Michael Stipe impression would sound like if I wanted him to sound conceited and provincial. It’s surprising to hear such labored drivel from a group as respected as R.E.M. I’ve heard some heinous ‘90’s rehashing in my time, but it is a genuine disappointment to hear such a stalwart so spectacularly spin out as badly as the band does on Collapse Into Now.