Saturday, March 26, 2011

Muse, ack!

Yay good music!

I picked up R.E.M.'s "Collapse Into Now" and have enjoyed my first few listens through it. I'm always hesitant to weigh in too strongly on an REM album. Almost without exception, they grow on me, and I hate being on record as having an opinion when I'm fairly sure that opinion will shift over time. Heck, I hated Around the Sun when it came out, and now I enjoy it... definitely towards the bottom of their discography, but even bad REM is better than most other music.

So: my two favorite bands are PROBABLY REM and Radiohead. (At any given time I'll probably be listening more to some electronic artist instead, but year after year those are the bands I keep returning to.) I've noticed that the press has a ritual any time either band releases a new album: before it arrives, they'll speculate about whether it's a "real rock album" or not, and will quote statements from the band indicating that it is. Then, once it drops, the critics will determine whether it qualifies as a "real" rock album. Their review will almost inevitably address this question, which is pretty funny, because the question of whether an album is "rock" or not will have only a tenuous connection to the critic's eventual like or dislike of the album. (As best as I can tell, something counts as a "real rock album" if it prominently features undigitized electric guitar, played quickly on more than half of the tracks.)

The cycle continues for CIN (as it apparently is for King of Limbs, though I'm trying to avoid those reviews until I can give the album its due on my own). Well, backing up a bit, Accelerate scored incredibly high on the "real rock" scale. Most of the reviews for CIN seem to think that the album "rocks" about the same quantity as Accelerate, but is overall of lower quality. When making comparisons (because everyone, including me, LOVES comparing REM albums), the albums that keep on coming up are Accelerate and Monster.

I just don't get it. Yeah, "Discoverer", the opening track, is an exciting, fist-pumping anthemic rocker of a piece. That's not really unusual, though... I don't think you can find any REM album that doesn't have at least one enthusiastic track on it. As I listened to the album, the album I found myself thinking of most often was "Out of Time," REM's gorgeously flawed bridge between the masterpieces Green and Automatic.

Like OOT, CIN is... well, maybe not always happy, but decidedly upbeat. It experiments with different moods and arrangements, not always maintaining a lot of continuity between tracks, but making a fairly coherent over-arching statement. It also expands the fold; remember how OOT had the B-52's? Well, CIN has Patti Smith (as gorgeously strong here as she was on New Adventures in Hi-Fi), Eddie Vedder (hands-down his gentlest delivery ever), and Peaches. Again, it feels a little bit messy - these voices don't always seem to fit with REM - but it's messy in an expansive, interesting way.

A couple of the songs seemed to pretty consciously evoke OOT, as well. In particular, I think "It Happened Today" has to be REM's most unabashedly joyous song since... well, since Shining Happy People. And "Blue" seems to be continuing the conversation that started twenty years ago(!!!) in "Country Feedback."

This album seemed determine to make me like it. On a few occasions I thought, "Eh, this song isn't doing it for me," only to have it surprise me. "Oh My Heart" starts a little monotonously, but then Michael gets to the second verse: "The storm didn't kill me; the government changed." BAM! Just like that, I realized that this song was a sequel to "Houston," one of my favorite songs off of Accelerate. And that made me think of the tectonic changes we've experienced in the three years since that previous album dropped. I imagined our nation cautiously crawling out from the rubble, blinking our eyes, unsteadily trying to regain our feet. It's a place of pain, but also a place of hope, where we can see a way forward. "Oh My Heart," indeed!

"It Happened Today" seemed a little too light and fluffy at first. Then they just say, "screw it," and spend most of the song clapping their hands and singing "Oh, oh, oh, whoa, whoa, oh!" I mean, c'mon! That takes guts, and I love them for it.

I think my favorite tracks come at the end, though. "Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter" is the one song that does sound like it could have come from Monster; like that album, it's a winking parody of larger-than-life sound. It has fun, though, especially that ludicrous guitar lick during the bridge. Every time I listen to that track I hear something else over-the-top going on. "That Someone Is You" is a brief, exultant ode; it has an oddly punk-music structure to the song, but full-on REM execution. "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I" carries hints of the Southern Gothic thing that REM used to do back in the late 80's. I think my favorite track on the album may be "Blue," with its discordancy, spoken-word ramblings, noisemaking... all in the service of an elegiac, mournful, quiveringly beautiful song.

I can't rate Collapse Into Now yet, but just so y'all know where I'm coming from, I figured I'd go ahead and rank all the OTHER REM albums. I should mention that this list regularly shifts depending on my mood and what I've been listening to lately.
  1.  Green
  2. Automatic for the People
  3. Murmur 
  4. Document
  5. Accelerate 
  6. Life's Rich Pageant
  7. Reveal 
  8. Fables of the Reconstruction
  9. Up
  10. New Adventures in Hi-Fi. (This album makes Out of Time look like a fully coherent and thoroughly thought-out work.)
  11. Out of Time
  12. Around the Sun
  13. Reckoning
  14. Monster

And, that's that! Man... do you realize how lucky we are to have this band? They've been releasing records for almost as long as I've been alive. How many bands out there are still releasing original material after thirty years? How many bands are making GOOD MUSIC after that long? The muse hasn't left them yet, and it's fascinating to see what a rock band with a lifetime of experience behind them is capable of producing.

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