For anyone wondering what Michael Stipe wants after all these years, Stipe has chosen R.E.M.’s 15th album as the place to run down his wish list. “I want Whitman proud!” he declares in the superb finale, “Blue.” “I want Patti Lee proud,” meaning old friend Patti Smith, who’s there in the studio making gorgeously guttural noises. “I want my brothers proud,” probably meaning Peter Buck and Mike Mills, who cut loose with a country-feedback guitar groove. “I want my sisters proud! I want me! I want it all! I want sensational, irresistible! This is my time, and I am thrilled to be alive!” And he sounds it.
Smith suggested the title Collapse Into Now, which could be an answer to her heartbreaking memoir from last year, Just Kids. Except instead of scruffy young bohemians hustling to make it, it’s a portrait of full-grown artists who reached the top long ago but decided to stick together and ride out the decades. You can hear a lot of shared history in the music, but you can also hear conflict, confusion, doubt — exactly the kind of recipe that R.E.M. thrive on. Just kids? That was the easy part.
Collapse Into Now is the first truly messy album R.E.M. have made in 10 years, since their underrated 2001 gem, Reveal. Their recent albums have focused on one musical approach at a time: 2004’s Around the Sun was all slow-motion torpor, and 2008’s excellent Accelerate went for spiky rockers. But 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.”
Guitar god Buck shines on Collapse, whether he’s going for psychedelic buzz (“Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”) or power-chord thump (“Mine Smell Like Honey”). Multi-instrumentalist Mills adds his always-essential voice; “All the Best” shows why his backup vocals are as key to R.E.M. as Michael Anthony’s are to Van Halen. Eddie Vedder guests on “It Happened Today,” and though it’s not clear who the hell invited Peaches, she sounds fine beside Lenny Kaye’s guitar on “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter.”
Stipe isn’t as emotionally expressive as he was on Accelerate and Reveal — you wish he’d get into a mood now and then, even if it’s just one of his surly spells. He’s best when he decides to stop trying so hard — as in the two-minute goof “That Someone Is You,” where the band rocks out as Stipe rhymes “Sharon Stone Casino,” “Scarface Al Pacino” and “’74 Torino.”
It’s been 30 years since these Georgia boys released their debut indie single, “Radio Free Europe”/”Sitting Still,” which basically invented everything halfway interesting that guitar bands have done ever since. 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. Who knows if Whitman or Patti Smith is proud — but R.E.M. should be.