Well, another year, another R.E.M. album. 

Ho hum. 

As usual, the record was preceded by a fair amount of hype. "The best album they've done since 'Out Of Time'!" some said. "R.E.M. returns to form!"

Well, not exactly. The group has slowly slid into irrelevancy during the 2000s, and there's not much here to arrest that descent. 

Look at the band's history : bursting out of Athens. Georgia in the early 1980s, R.E.M. sounded like they were from some alternate universe. The music they did was brilliant, and had very little in common with anything that was being done during that time. They released four brilliant albums ("Murmur", "Reckoning", "Fables of the Reconstruction", and "Life's Rich Pageant"), and then managed to achieve mainstream success by hardening their sound with "Document". They had a huge hit in "Losing My Religion" - again sounding like nothing else prevalent during that time. They peaked in the 1990s with "Out of Time" and "Automatic For the People". 

In the last ten years or so, though, they've released sporadic records that tarnish their legacy. The best of these is the 2001 album "Reveal", which at least maintained some integrity and cleverness. As for "Around the Sun" and "Accelerate", well . . . not so much. 

Now comes the nicely titled "Collapse Into Now", which is in some respects better than the two previous albums, but still not quite there. 

There's a diversity of sound that the group has returned to, and that's a good thing. We've got some crunchy rock numbers here ("Discoverer", "Mine Smell Like Honey") counterbalanced with some acoustic-based, mandolin-y tunes ("Uberlin", "Walk It Back"). We've got a bonafide Michael Stipe verbal-diarrhea freakout, with Patti Smith on vocals, no less ("Blue"). 

But Stipe's lyrics are at best mildly interesting, and at worst mundane. The amazing wordplay that was a landmark of R.E.M. seems sadly gone for the most part. Not only that, but Stipe's voice has roughened a bit over the years, and whereas before he sounded unique and deep, now he occasionally just sounds whiny. 

Some of the tracks are worth a listen, though : 

"Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I" has a nice harmonic sound, with double-tracked vocals and silvery acoustic guitars. "Walk It Back" is blowsy and bluesy. "All the Best" is a straightforward rock blast, with Stipe pushing his voice up an octave in the vocal so that he sounds surprised he's singing the song. "Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter" is aggressive, and brings Stipe back to those alphabetical lists he's always seemed to love. 

There are lots of missteps, too, such as the folky "Oh My Heart". Here we have yet another paean to New Orleans after the storm : dude, that was six years ago. Get over it. This song adds nothing to the vast library of songs, poems, books, television shows, and movies that document that time. Also, "Every Day Is Yours To Win", with it's vaguely echoed vocal and mundanity of the words ("I cannot tell a lie/It's not all cherry pie"), is like a parody of the band in its glory days. 

As much as I've always loved and respected this band, I'm thinking it's about time to write them off. I've always had high expectations of R.E.M., and in recent years they've managed to not come anywhere near reaching them. I'll have to see what the B-52s do to satisfy my Athens jones. 

I can't say that it's all bad, but I can't say that it's very good, either. I give "Collapse Into Now" a 5 on the England Swings scale of 1-10. 

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