Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Like It's 1991....

If there is one thing in life that can dominate my brain to the same extent that the approaching baseball season currently is, it is a new album from R.E.M. I'll spare you the recap of their career that feels obligatory when you're about to talk about a new album from the 2000's era of the band's career -- and I'll also dispense with my attempt to prove my chops as a true R.E.M. fan. Let's just say that I've been captivated to one degree or another by almost everything the band has done since the lightbulb when off for me during that family vacation in 1988 where a cassette copy of "Life's Rich Pageant" and "Document" played endlessly in my walkman and I finally understood what several of my friends had already figured out. That to my 15 year old sensibilities, this was a band that would change and ultimately shape my view on the world. Truth be told, it was actually a Warren Zevon album, "Sentimental Hygiene" that had me going back to re-listen to the cassette that a friend had made for me.

But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the band that held my attention like no other...that had me saving every dollar I could muster to head up to the mall and buy all of their albums...that had me trying to learn to play guitar just like Peter Buck...that had me trying to decipher the meaning of lyrics like "man ray kind of sky" and "shoulder's high in the room"...would still be making music that I'd want to listen to when the calendar turned to 2011. And that I'd feel like that 18 year old freshman at Eastern Illinois University that begged a friend from the dorm to drive him the 16 miles over to Mattoon, Illinois to the closest record store to buy "Out of Time."

But here I am, 38 year old, a dad and supposedly responsible adult who is looking for any excuse to grab the ipod to listen to the new R.E.M. record on. I haven't truly hated any record they've ever made -- even "Around the Sun" has its moments -- but it has also been a long time since their music has stirred my emotions the way I think "Collapse Into Now" is at the moment. I say *think* because I do recall that my initial reaction to "Reveal" wasn't completely dissimilar, and over time, that one has faded for me. "Accelerate" was a breath of fresh air for all of us longtime fans, but -- though I love that record -- there are a few songs that are pretty thin and don't hold up a few years on. "Collapse", though, feels like one that will stick.

"Discoverer" is a perfect track to kick things off -- it has the same aggressiveness as "Living Well Is the Best Revenge", and the minute you hear Stipe chime in with "Hey Baby / This is not a challenge / It just means that I love you as much as I always said I did", you can't help but smile. It's one thing to make a comeback album like "Accelerate", but it's quite another to keep the momentum going. Things get even better with "Uberlin" and "Oh My Heart", which instantly sound like the R.E.M. of the 90's without feeling like cheap rip offs. "It Happened Today" follows and might be my favorite song on the set. Of course, if this truly is the best album that R.E.M. has made since the late 90's, my favorite song on the album will be subject to change on a daily basis for the next few weeks. Unlike any of the post-Berry albums, there isn't a bad song on the album, though "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I" does come a little closer than any of the other songs.

As with "Accelerate", the band has the good sense to fight the urge to make this an overly long album. I really hate the trend that started with the CD and has grown worse in the digital age -- that bands feel the need to give you quantity over quality. The result is that there are very few albums that come out that capture my attention the way some of R.E.M.'s classic albums did. "Collapse" is a tad longer than the previous album, but at just over 40 minutes seems fairly brief by today's standards.

I used to worry that R.E.M. was no longer making the kind of albums that everyone seemed to want to talk about. It bugged me that they had gone from that band that you liked to be cool to that band that it was cool to hate. I felt like you always had to talk in caveats when discussing their recent output -- "Yeah, it's no (fill in your favorite album here) but it is still not bad." As I listen to "Collapse", it strikes me that I'm not thinking about the fact that this is their best post-Berry album or their best in probably 15 or 16 years for that matter. I'm not thinking about the fact that both Stipe and Buck are over 50. I'm not thinking about the fact that this may or may not be as good as whichever album is your favorite. I'm simply thinking about the fact that even if they aren't quite what they were in 1991, they are still a pretty great band and this is a very good album.

Thanks for reading....

(There are so many reviews that are more worthy of space than mine.....a nice way to sample what real critics are saying is to check out Metacritic here).

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