by Bill Palmer
“You’re always working against your past,” muses R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck on the prospects for his band’s new album Collapse Into Now, just before its release on a day in which he’s been awake since well before dawn and isn’t sure why. His new record, out today, faces the dual challenge of living up to the original R.E.M. glory years and measuring up to the more recent success of the band’s previous album, which was widely considered to be a comeback record. But rather than attempt to repeat their own Accelerate formula, which had resulted in a “unidirectional record” in which every song was up tempo and it was all over before you knew it, Collapse runs the gamut in tempo and tone. It’s the best work R.E.M. has done since the band became a trio fourteen years ago, and it also sees the band unafraid to revisit what worked for them back in the day, and unafraid to admit it, either.
“We’d made a couple records that were mid tempo to slow,” says Buck of the R.E.M. era immediately prior to Accelerate. “This time around we were all trying to bring in different kinds of stuff and capture some of the things that maybe we’d done in the past that we hadn’t revisited, the kind of acoustic stuff which I’ve been playing more or less folk music since I was fifteen.”
Buck’s signature mandolin even makes a return, playing a big role on the gentle mid-tempo folky It Happened Today, which also happens to feature subtle, don’t-pay-attention-and-you’ll-miss-it backing vocals from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder – but that happened more or less by accident.
Buck, vocalist Michael Stipe, and bassist Mike Mills willfully hopped the globe while making the record, never working in the same city for more than two or three weeks. “We picked New Orleans and Berlin first because they’re both nightlife cities and there’s music everywhere,” Buck says. “When we were in New Orleans, pretty much all of us went out almost every night. You could go to dinner and there would be a great three piece jazz band playing, or the trombone guy sitting in the corner.”
It was in Berlin where guest vocalists began to find their way onto the record in unplanned fashion. After Buck joined Pearl Jam onstage one night, Vedder dropped by R.E.M.’s studio the next day, prompting Stipe to ask him “why don’t you sing on this?” Peaches was also brought in for vocal contributions after Stipe randomly bumped into her at a bar.
If there was no plan as to how the guest vocalists found their way onto Collapse Into Now, there’s no real plan as to the band’s tour plans either – except that for now, there are none. “We just toured, it seemed like, last week,” says Buck before admitting that it was in fact a couple of years ago. “We’ll just see what happens. But it does seem like we’ve toured a lot in the last eight or ten years. To some degree it felt like we’d just been doing kind of the same thing we did last time. You just don’t really want to repeat yourself in that way.”
An old adage says that an album can’t sell well if the band doesn’t tour on it, but in this era in which albums don’t tend to sell well regardless, the lack of touring isn’t a concern: “I’m not really sure that touring sells records. What sells records anymore? It seems like less and less people are buying albums, so do what you want.”
That “do what you want” philosophy led R.E.M. to allow longtime friend Patti Smith to add the closing vocals to the album’s final track entitled Blue, after she said “I’ve got something I want to sing on this” and immediately wrote a paragraph of lyrics before recording them. The band also allowed Smith to choose the album’s title, after she suggested gleaning it from Stipe’s final vocals on Blue: This is my time and I am thrilled to be alive. Living, blessed, I understand. Twentieth century, collapse into now.
“That’s the perfect song to end the record except it seems kind of weird to have the record end with someone not in the band singing,” says Buck of the band’s decision, suggested by producer Jacknife Lee, to loop the opening track Discoverer onto the end of the album. Was it intentional, then, that the end of the album serves as a direct lead-in to the beginning if you’ve got it on repeat? “I think the idea was that it made the record very circular and almost self referential. But it’s just like almost anything else you do, it’s kind of an accident.”
In other places, the album sees songs with Stipe-penned titles including “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” and “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter,” the latter of which Buck refers to as “Antimatter Auto-whatever” and jokes “I don’t know what it’s called” after Stipe repeatedly changed the song’s title prior to the album’s release. Buck says the Brando song is more clear to him, as it’s “in reference to the Neil Young song. When he showed us the lyrics, I think the first time he sung it, he actually mentioned Neil Young in the first verse” before ultimately deciding that the reference was obvious enough without the explicit mention. Elsewhere in the album, however, Stipe name-drops Sharon Stone and Al Pacino, rhyming the latter with the “Casino” movie in which the two starred.
“It’s about as easy as I’ve ever been involved in making a record,” Buck says of the Collapse experience, and that Stipe is “really working at the top of his game.” And while those are the things one might expect an artist to say about the latest project, elsewhere in the conversation he freely refers to his band’s thirteenth album Around The Sun as a “bad record” which left him with a “horrible feeling,” making it easier to believe him when he speaks highly of his band’s fifteenth.
As for the experience of working with his old college mates, who’ve now been his bandmates for thirty years, he says “We certainly know how to push each other’s buttons. But we’ve been working together for a long, long time and you realize that over the history that the work we’ve done has been important to us. Sometimes you make personal sacrifices to do good work. Not that there have been many sacrifices. But we have to learn to compromise and deal with stuff. It isn’t super easy all the time, but it’s not that hard.”