Just two songs into R.E.M.'s 15th — that's right, 15th — studio album, Michael Stipe goes self-referential: "I think I'll sing in rhyme/ I'll give it one more time/ I'll show the kids how to do it, fine." And then in the next verse, "It's just like me to overstay my welcome, man."
Whether or not, 30-plus years into their career, R.E.M. have overstayed their welcome, man, is a source of debate for greybeards whose hearts still skip a beat whenever they hear the phrase "Hib-Tone Single." The arguments break down predictably: that they lost their way after they left I.R.S. (22 years ago!), or that they should have quit when Bill Berry did (about 10 years later). And then there are those — usually shy, occasionally defensive and always self-conscious — who are just happy to have some version of R.E.M. sticking around and releasing modestly satisfying records every couple of years as long as they keep the number of embarrassments — both public and artistic — to a minimum.
It's that last set that Collapse Into Now is made for. Where 2008's lean, snarling Accelerate functioned mainly as a defibrillator, Collapse is more measured; it's diverse and dignified, a controlled but emphatic throat-clearing from the elder statesmen to remind you that they're still in the room, and they can hear you talking shit.
Not that we needed reminding: While R.E.M. themselves have not exactly been killing it on Twitter, their presence has been felt in other ways. Just like it's easy to spot U2's DNA in the deeply-felt stridency of Arcade Fire, R.E.M. set the template for that other strand of popular indie, a lineage that includes both the Decemberists' eggheaded Book Report Rock and the National's free-associative moodiness. (You could even argue that their reckless, early records birthed bands like Ohio's Cloud Nothings whose punchy self-titled record often sounds like someone playing Chronic Town on the wrong speed.) And so if other people are, deliberately or otherwise, surveying R.E.M.'s history, it's only fair that they get to have a go at it themselves.
In Collapse lurk the ghosts of every R.E.M. song of the last 15 years. The spiraling guitar pattern on psyched-up opener "Discoverer" recalls Green's similarly acid-eaten "I Could Turn You Inside Out"; "Uberlin," about a teenage loner wandering around Germany, compensates for its terrible title with a stark bit of folk-rock that could be an answer song to "Drive"; and the searching "Oh My Heart" draws on the same heartsick longing as "New Test Leper." (Sometimes the similarities are a bit too-close: album-closing spoken-word snoozer "Blue," which features Patti Smith, is such a dead-ringer for Out of Time's "Country Feedback" it qualifies the group for a Fogerty-style self-plagiarism suit.) With one exception, every post-'90s R.E.M. record seemed written according to a particular spec — the noisy, sexy one; the bloopy, daring one; the limp, shitty one. The sole dissenter is New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and it's to that record that the confident Collapse, in tone and in breadth, bears the closest resemblance.
As always, the group rises and falls on the whims of Michael Stipe. Never a likely rock frontman, Stipe was at his best as a lyricist when he compensated for his insecurities with Dadaist tone poems (and, later, cartoonishly inflated sexuality and a kind of confrontational homoeroticism). Of late, he's become more of a raconteur; on Collapse, he writes obtuse fiction from the perspective of young misfits and occasionally scrapbooks events in his own life (in the first song, he's drinking vodka and espresso while stumbling down Houston Street). He's mercifully dialed back the hyper-literalism that sandbagged the group's records in the mid '00s; on Collapse, you groan at his occasional clunkers the way you sigh in disappointment when your kids spill grape juice on the carpet ("Mine Smell Like Honey"? Really, dude?) He even pulls off the unlikely trifecta of "Sharon Stone Casino/ Scarface Al Pacino/'74 Torino." The group is abetted by a small cast of supporting players, the best of whom — somehow — is Peaches, who steps in to play the role of Kate Pierson on (brace yourself) "Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter," a white-hot flash of a song that's all punch and swagger.
Occasionally, the album seems to hint at denouement. Its title is hardly victorious, implying exhausted surrender rather than aggressive attack. Collapse is the last album in the group's mega-million Warner Brothers contract, and that fact, coupled with their puzzling decision not to tour in support of a record that seems written to be played live, implies that Buck, Mills and Stipe have started to think of the group as a distraction rather than a going concern. Think, then, of Collapse as their elegant credit-montage, hitting all the familiar scenes along the way — oblong, counterintuitive rockers, vulnerable soul-searchers and, occasionally, ballads of arresting beauty.
Into that last category falls the tender lullaby "Every Day is Yours to Win," which shows up halfway through the record and spins as slowly as a mobile over a baby's crib. The gentleness of the lyrics is stirring, Stipe softly talking someone through life's agonies by assuring: "I cannot tell a lie, it's not all cherry pie/ but it's all there waiting for you" before the song crests in a chorus of wordless beauty that can mean a hundred different things, depending on how you hear it. That, too, is a kind of reminiscence: R.E.M. are still at their best when they let you fill in the blanks.