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R.E.M.: A Classic Sound Regained

R.E.M.'s new album is <em>Collapse into Now</em>.<em></em>
Courtesy of the artist
R.E.M.'s new album is Collapse into Now.

R.E.M. is a band that fans form intense bonds with. I'm one of those fans.

In the '80s and '90s, R.E.M. was my platonic ideal of a rock group: mysterious yet straightforward, arty yet unpretentious, noisy, delicate, serious, goofy, and heroic — more for its creative empathy than the band members' egos. But by the aughts they'd lost their drummer, and their music suggested they'd lost their religion too (so to speak). Now, they've made an entire album about getting it back.

"It's just like me to overstay my welcome," sings Michael Stipe on "All The Best," the second track on Collapse Into Now. There's an aesthetic strategy behind that passive-aggressive line, but R.E.M. doesn't really make records about itself. Stipe is part of a generation of singers who channel a collective voice — like on "Oh My Heart," which suggests a Hurricane Katrina narrative but also casts a wider net.

It's great to hear the band return to the songwriting style of Automatic For The People and Out Of Time: those acoustic anthems that offer optimism and consolation without being corny. I also like the weird final cut, "Blue," in which Stipe does an inverted duet with his pal and mentor Patti Smith — Smith singing the verses while Stipe does the poetic ranting.

By my math, Collapse Into Now is R.E.M.'s best record in about 16 1/2 years. It does everything that the group has ever done well, even the thing that first defined it: making profoundly moving rock 'n' roll out of singing that, strictly speaking, is unintelligible.

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Will Hermes