While touring throughout 2008, R.E.M. knew they had a decision to make. Their contract was up with Warners and the question was ‘what happens next?’. Stipe remarked that: “I need to be away from this for a long time.” Buck suggested: “How about forever?”
“Oddly enough,” said Mills later, “I think that independently we all arrived at the conclusion that this was such a great opportunity to walk away on our own terms, that we thought why not take advantage of it?” So it was that in the spring of 2009, the band went into a local studio in Athens, GA. to start recording demos for the songs that would form their 15th and final studio album. Over the next 18 months, they would record in Portland, Nashville and New Orleans in the States, before decamping to Berlin for the final sessions. It was there, in the grand Meister Halle in the world-famous Hansa Studios, that reality set in.
“We tried to enjoy it and make it as fun as possible,” recalled Mills, “But we’re not super-sentimental people in that sense. The only time we got really poignant was when we were in Berlin where we recorded seven or eight songs. There was no one there really except some friends, family, and significant others, and we knew that was probably the last time we would ever play together as R.E.M. That was a pretty fraught day. But it was fun.”
Collapse Into Now is a deliberately more varied and expansive record than its immediate predecessor. It included special guest appearances by Peaches, Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, and referenced their past at numerous points while also showing their comfort with where they were at the time, ready to draw a line under a stellar 30 year career. It’s not a particularly consistent record – it doesn’t really hang together terribly well to me – but it has some very fine moments.
Of its five – FIVE – digital singles, three were given a physical release in the UK in the form of a triple-pack of 7” singles for Record Store Day. Collectively titled ‘Three’, it kind of displays the various moods and reference points the album gives us.
The curiously-titled Mine Smell Like Honey is a rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on Accelerate. Its understated verses give way to a rousing chorus that has R.E.M. written all over it. Überlin sounds like Drive, a song that 20 years earlier opened the band’s biggest-selling and best-known album, the one that made them global megastars. It’s probably the most intriguing song on the record. Stipe explained: “I wanted to picture an almost blunt outsider’s perspective – the experience of a guy who is walking through a city that is completely new to him and still very unfamiliar. I just tried to figure out the mind of this outsider. The city could as well be New York. In each of these big, great cities, you can be completely alone. This is the guy up to the last verse, when he finds somebody and says: ‘Let’s try to make something happen. Tonight. Right now.’”
Oh My Heart has another protagonist going to a city, only this time s/he is returning home to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. The brass instruments lend an almost funereal feel to the song, while Buck’s trusty mandolin returns to lend another air of Automatic For The People to the proceedings.
The b-sides were all recorded live during their last ever tour in 2008, featuring songs from very different points in the band’s career. Supernatural Superserious, from their then-current album, was captured in North Carolina; Harborcoat, from 1984’s Reckoning, is from a show in Riga, Latvia; and What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? comes from Oslo in Norway. All three presented here were ripped by yours truly from the 7” singles.
I always felt Collapse Into Now was a slightly underwhelming way for the band to bow out, mainly due to its inconsistency. Nevertheless, it’s still very listenable and does contain a few songs I’d still put on a highlights playlist.
Next week, we bring this whole shebang to a close as we tie up some loose ends and bring you R.E.M.’s swansong. I’ll also have some news for those of you who still need an R.E.M. fix every Sunday morning…