Saturday, March 12, 2011

That Old-Fashioned Thing Called "Song"

So, there's a new REM album : "Collapse into Now". I happen to be a huge REM fan, ever since 1991's "Out of Time" and my favorite album ever is the elegant, sophisticated, brilliantly written "Up" from 1999.

There are two reasons why I love that band. First they write some of the best songs ever. Second they've got one of the best singers ever.

That said, I was quite disappointed by their last offering, which I think is a rather uninspired, hastily put together, clumsily mixed rock album. That's probably why I wasn't expecting too much of this one. But I was wrong.

This is a good album.

Some would say that it's a fallback to their classic sound. Well, that's only true if you specifically refer to the "Out of Time"/"Automatic to the People" acoustic-tinged production (and parts of "Green"). It's wrong if you consider the indie rock sound of their first five albums. It'd be more accurate to say that it's a return to the sound of unarguably their most commercially successful period. Also, it's fair to say that none of the lovely new-wave-ish electro touches of "Up" and "Reveal" are to be found here, and that, contrary to these two specific albums, this one doesn't mark any clear departure from what it's usually identified as the trademark REM sound.

And oh, by the way, all of the above doesn't fucking matter.

That is, it matters if you're concerned about style over substance. Otherwise, it's just a distraction from the fact that these are really good songs.

You know, "song", that combination of chords, melody and words that's supposed to move you regardless of whatever instrument you're playing it or if it's recorded as new wave polka or free jazz metal.

I know, I know... that talk about substance over style, it's a little quaint in the age of Lady Gaga, right after the Björk era and before the next shallow media act, but there you go.. What matters in an album is the songs. They're good or they aren't. Then only you may wonder about the production.

Now from some artists you expect a different style every time, like Bowie. Because that's what they're good at, reinventing their style. Some artists you don't really give a damn. Who the hell cares if Neil Young dig the same mine album after album? I don't. He sure tried a bold move, sonically speaking, with his last "Le Noise" album, and boy is it misconceived and overblown by critics. And in any case, what really bothers me about Neil Young's most recent output is that the songs aren't as inspired as in the past, ever since, let's say, 2000 "Silver and Gold". I don't care if "Silver and Gold" could have been recorded the exact same way in 1970. Why should I? Every song on this album is a masterpiece of songwriting.

But back to REM.

Here is a solid folk-rock album, with a beautiful tangle of acoustic and electric guitars, with the occasional horns and accordion. It's tastefully produced and a lot more intricate and sophisticated than a casual listen will reveal.

The songs are really nice. The acoustic ballads especially wouldn't feel out of place on "Automatic" or "New Adventures", may it be the glowing, Dylanesque "Oh my Heart", the ultra-melodic "Überlin" or the direct and poignant "Walk it Back". And it goes on : "Me, Marlon Brando...", "It Happened Today", "Blue" (with Patti Smith!), all of this just grows on me listen after listen.

We get treated to a number of jumpy, almost psychedelic pop songs in the mould of their "Green" album : "Mine Smells like Honey", "That Someone is You"...

Sure, there's some repetition here and there. "Überlin" is reminiscent of "She just wants to be" from the "Reveal" album, and "Blue" is obviously a (lesser) rewrite of the classic "Country Feedback" (one of my favorite songs) on the "Out of Time" album.

Also, I've got to say that overall the album is short, with at least three totally redundant and tepid rock songs : "Discoverer", "All the Best" and "Alligator". That last song especially stands out as the most superfluous song of the album. It sounds like a rehearsal jam over a clichéd guitar riff with Stipe howling out a single-note melody over and over. Totally pointless.

And the lyrics... well, I'm not so sure about them either. Some are classic obscure Stipe, others are just plain embarrassing, most notably the awful "Drive" parody in "Every Day is Yours to Win" (gee, just that song title makes me want to throw up).

But hey, let's not focus on the negative. Sure, there's a feeling ever since "Around the Sun" that the band is past its prime, but that's something that happens to everyone, so it's somewhat irrelevant to dwell on that at this point.

It's a nice electro-acoustic work with great songwriting, superbly performed and sung, and I think it'll stand up the test of time nicely, whereas the bolder (for REM) "Accelerate" is already forgotten (by me).

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