The arrival of a new R.E.M. album is always as much a cause for trepidation as celebration. The last decade wasn't very kind. Even the hardest of hard core fans - us old timers who remember a time when you couldn't understand what that hairy kid was mumbling on the Letterman show - had trouble working up genuine enthusiasm for Reveal, and then Around the Sun was just plain bad. Accelerate was not a "return to form" - it was still different enough from their past glories to qualify as something new - but it was a definite course correction.
Around the Sun was a bloated hour of awful, maudlin ballads, and not even the band was particularly happy with the results. The follow-up was hard, fast and loose, a definite improvement, with a few songs that ranked with the best work they'd had ever done. But there was no denying that the results were still tentative: the brief running time and bare-bones production painted a picture of a band that had forgotten nearly everything about making good records, and had reacted by razing their style to the ground and building again from the ground up. It takes an admirable degree of humility to be able to deliver such a definitive self-criticism.
So here's the album-after-the-comeback-album, Collapse Into Now. The first thing you will notice is just how awful the cover is: I am not usually one to harp on such things, because most album covers are awful, it's just a fact of life. But this one - and, if we're honest, the last decade's worth of R.E.M. album covers - just looks like something that some Warner Brothers studio artist threw together on Photoshop in a few hours' time. It's not like R.E.M. is a stranger to bad album covers - they've got maybe five decent album covers in their whole discography, depending on how you feel about Reckoning - but it's kind of embarrassing just how little effort seems to have gone into the whole thing. It's bad enough, trying to convince people that the band is still producing music worth hearing, without the albums themselves looking like the flyer to some really "hip" corporate retreat that gives you two hours of company softball in exchange for ten hours of meetings on third-quarter projected earnings.
Is it a good album? Yes. Is it a great album to stand alongside Murmur and Automatic for the People? Eh, not really. It sounds pretty good, and if you have liked R.E.M. but lost touch over the years, you might be pleasantly surprised by how good it sounds. But for the hardcore, it's hardly a home run: it still sounds as if they're running around with weights on their ankles. The moves are there, but something keeps holding them back from really following through like they used to be able to do.
After thinking through the problem, I think I've figured out just what's holding them back: Michael Stipe himself. Yeah, I know. Without Stipe, where is R.E.M.? Musically, the group still packs a punch. Bill Berry's been gone for almost 15 years, and if you're still not cool with that fact, it's time to grow up and get off the toilet, that train left the station back before Clinton was impeached. The fact is that they are perfectly capable of producing good music as a trio. They have produced a lot of good music as a trio, and some of that music is even on this disc right here. The problem isn't that Berry took his rhythm section with him - although that was obviously a problem - it's that he took the band's cynicism with him. I'm not psychic so I'm not privy to how the band operates - there are plenty of R.E.M. kremlinologists who know more on the subject than I do. All I can say for certain is that after 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the band's thematic and subject palettes shrank precipitously. Used to be, an R.E.M. album was a unpredictable place - sure, there were skewed bubblegum pop songs and earnest ballads, but there were also opaque diss songs and violent sex songs and paranoid songs and even the odd straight-up we're-going-to-out-depress-the-Smiths murder ballads. Listen to Monster some time: you've got poppy rockers, sweet love songs, and then violent erotic obsession, cruelty, soul-crushing despair, and whatever the fuck "Tongue" is. They did a lot of stuff and did it all well.
Now, however, they have a hard time branching out from their dominant mode of heartfelt sincerity. Michael Stipe is still a great singer but he's just not that interesting a lyricist anymore. So many of his modern lyrics are banal self-esteem ballads. I don't fault the guy for being happy or contented or sincere or whatever, but the results of writing about being winsome and hopeful are just not that interesting. (Still better than Bono's umpteenth variation of "Oh wow, let's rock because we're cool and life is beautiful!" but that's hardly saying much.) I mean, you could put together a full LP just with Stipe's fatuous optimism: "Imitation of Life," "At Your Most Beautiful," most of Around the Sun, "Supernatural Superserious." Like, yeah, all the kids shaking through a rough adolescence really appreciate the words of encouragement from the rock star, but they're too busy listening to Ke$ha to care about what some 51 year old bald cat wants to say about "things getting better in college." Write about something nasty again, why don't you? "Everybody Hurts" was already a bit hard to swallow but it just about works in the context of a very complex and emotionally demanding album. Its success was perhaps the single worst encouragement Stipe could have received. Enough with encouraging people not to commit suicide, we get that you're sincere in your desire to be an awesome dude - how about more songs about committing suicide? Those were awesome too.
Which is why, I think, even if I can't bring myself to hate Collapse Into Now - I've listened to it a lot this past week and I do like it - it can't help but feel a little lightweight. It sounds pretty good, and they've got a little of their confidence back, but thematically it just doesn't go very many places. It's one of those albums that casual fans might enjoy more than longtime aficionados. If you can come at it without the expectations of thirty years' familiarity, it sounds just fine. Otherwise it's hard not to think that it still sounds, strangely, as if they're playing with one hand tied behind their back.
(Check the comments if you're a cool kid.)