Michael Stipe dives right into R.E.M.'s new album, in a clearly enunciated, halting bark emanating from somewhere between "Out of Time" and "Automatic for the People," to assure us right away: "This is not a challenge / it just means that I love you as much as I always did." Aw, you'd almost think he had hair again. He goes on, as if reflecting on the band's 21st-century records -- from the spotty, uninspired "Reveal" to the revved-up with nowhere to roll "Accelerate" -- taking a deep breath, eager to move on: "Just the slightest bit of finesse / might have made a little less mess / But it was what it was / Let's all get on with it now." With spirited, snaky guitars and an urgent electric piano rhythm, "Collapse Into Now" (out Tuesday) shambles forward merrily.
Easily the most listenable and enjoyable R.E.M. album since the early '90s, "Collapse Into Now" -- the band's 15th full-length (streaming here) -- is funny and loose and wonderfully tuneful, with plenty of Peter Buck guitar melodies to hang an ear on. It sounds like an album they enjoyed writing and recording, as opposed to the drudgery and calculation of 2004's "Around the Sun." Most songs are decorated but not dominated by old R.E.M. stand-bys -- the piano and throaty vocals of "Walk It Back," the lengthy ending of "It Happened Today," which drags out the moaning oh's (is Mike Mills the best backup vocalist in rock?) and a welcoming army of multi-tracked mandolins. There are direct echoes, too -- "All the Best" boogies a lot like "Crush With Eyeliner," "Uberlin" is reminiscent of "Drive" but possessed of much more sweetness and joy. Buck's guitars are still plugged into "Monster" and "Green." The album is not cohesive or fluid. It's a bit of a mess, really, and thank heaven.
Even with the final tone-poem dirge, "Blue," featuring Patti Smith, evoking the scratchy wail of "Country Feedback," you can't call this a retro record. "Collapse Into Now" does just what that implies -- takes the various bits from R.E.M.'s bag of tricks and scrunches them into a crackling, current guitar-band sound. It's a record that sounds like it was made by a band, instead of an icon. In "All the Best," Stipe sings, "Let's show the kids how to do it fine," and they do.