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On R.E.M.’s Collapse into Now and the Problem of Comparisons (Or, How to Compete with a Lifetime of Listening)

March 9, 2011

Today for the Onion’s A.V. Club, Steven Hyden wrote in part about the new R.E.M. album Collapse into Now. He also used the occasion to recant for a previous piece from three years prior where he suggested that the band would have been better breaking up when Bill Berry left the band in 1997. I give a lot of credit to Hyden for bringing it back up again. I haven’t read his old piece, so I’m going by his synopsis when I say that, while not entirely off base about the post-Berry output falling off, his point about the band’s legacy retroactively weakening isn’t entirely true. If anything, it’s more that the current crop of bands looking backwards have been looking at R.E.M.’s contemporaries for inspiration rather than R.E.M. (for instance, the mini-post-punk revival a few years back or chillwave’s washed out synth bands aren’t name-checking Fables of the Reconstruction in their interviews). Perhaps, as Hyden peripherally suggests with the new Decemberists’ album, that time will come where more bands start referencing R.E.M. (I have to think that’s what his final clause, “because [the band’s legacy] no longer belongs to R.E.M.” means). Regardless, as the backlash (both from readers and professionals, as Hyden describes a pretty terrific comment the site’s editor left on the original article) suggests that R.E.M. continues to have a devoted (albeit significantly smaller) fanbase that stuck with the group for the last decade plus.

Anyway, this isn’t the point that interested me. At the end of the article, Hyden compares Collapse into Now with the triumpant enthusiasm that met Superchunk’s Majesty Shredding last fall. Superchunk, who became victims of their general high quality output and consistent sound, went nine years between albums and only sporadically played gigs each year (not a true nine year vacation, as the article suggests, but certainly not nine active years) and their latest record met general love. ” If R.E.M. had done something similar after New Adventures” Hyden suggests, “following up with Collapse Into Now would at least seem <a lot more vital.”

In retrospect, there are many who would gladly trade in R.E.M.’s output over the past fifteen years. Personally, I think Up suffers from the same kind of overstuffing many albums in the late ’90s faced, and there are many songs I’d miss scattered throughout the rest of the releases. This also forgets that 2008’s Accelerate met with the same kind of “they’re back!” revelry that Majesty Shredding met last fall. That being said, this assumes that the band would make an album like Collapse Into Now without all the other supposed missteps in the middle. Perhaps the band needed those years to find their identity, as Collapse into Now, if nothing else, feels like the band’s most confident record in ages. Who knows – perhaps the band will find a late period revival going forward?

Anyway, even if the band magically skipped from New Adventures to the present day and eliminated the “problematic” albums, there’s no guarantee that crystalizes the band’s back catalog. First, there are plenty of fans who already qualify their love of the band as “Pre-X,” where X is anything from “New Adventures” to “Warner Brothers” to “Document.” With a band with such an extensive (and relatively diverse – the band’s sound changed several times over the past thirty years) catalog, it’s natural to start drafting eras. There will always be fans who say a band was “better then,” regardless of the later output. Conversely, I imagine that the band’s continued presence, however occasional it may be, puts those “classic” records into more hands. If the discussion wasn’t about how R.E.M. isn’t as good as they used to be, the discussion might have been “what happened to those guys?” (or the worse “I haven’t thought about them in years!”).  While I’m sure Superchunk sold records last decade (they certainly did to me, as I became a bigger fan over the past decade), there were probably just as many who put their CDs in a box and went years in between listens.

One other fundamental difference between the two bands is the size of their fanbases. Superchunk are an incredibly respected band with a passionate fanbase, but they never filled arenas the way R.E.M. did. Even today, after all of those so-called “disappointing” albums, R.E.M. would still play those large outdoor venues this summer if they chose to do so. When the number of people in a group increases, the loudest voices tend to come from the most passionate on both ends of the spectrum.  Therefore, a band as beloved as R.E.M. probably “loses” more fans with each record than Superchunk’s fanbase (again, no offense intended). It’s natural that these voices, many of which have some kind of “better when” attitude,” would become louder.

That being said, it’s kind of an irrelevant point. As a fan of both bands (and of both band’s most recent records), I’m glad to have both of them active and with promising prospects for future success.  Their new records may never touch my favorites in their catalogs, but they also had a decade plus to grow on me. Instead, I’m happy they keep making records I want to hear.

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3 Comments
  1. Jerad permalink

    I’ve been thinking about this same thing as I’ve been reading the Collapse Into Now reviews and news this past week. As I listened to the new album this morning, my insight was that it sounds like a great collection of R.E.M. songs. By that, I mean their different types of songs that they’ve been playing for over 30 years. As you mention, they’ve covered a few different styles and sounds over that time and it feels like we’re probably past the point where they’re going to make a shift like that again. We all know what a Monster song sounds like; likewise with a Reckoning song or a Green song. Their last few albums pull from all of these styles that they’ve tried out, so there’s a group of people who just aren’t going to be happy unless they’re doing something NEW, regardless of how good the new songs really are. I don’t see them making an electronic album or a funk record any time soon, so I’m happy for them to keep writing songs using all of the different styles they’ve mastered over 30 years. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that “All The Best” could’ve been played on the Green World Tour or that “UBerlin” might fit better on Automatic than “Ignoreland”. I’m just happy to have more new music from these guys.
    (Thanks for giving me a platform to put my thoughts out there!)

    • No problem! I’m glad you read it!

      I’m spent a lot of free time today thinking about this article, and I’m happy with the conclusion that the discontented fans will sound louder when there’s more of them. I’m not sure I’d WANT a R.E.M. funk album!

      The other elephant in the room in this discussion is the issue of attachment (I think I’m saving it for another time). For instance, I first fell in love with most of the band’s catalog (and certainly the classics like Automatic and Document) when I was 14, 15, and 16. Music might never hit me the same way it hit me when I was that age, and every record since then has that uphill battle. I still remember the first time I listened to Automatic for the People straight through – sitting on my top bunk in my parents house with my crappy discman sitting on my pillow. For most people, life isn’t as intense (for better or worse) as it was when they first heard those albums.

    • Also, thanks for having me realize that I had “moderate comments” turned on. That’s fixed now!

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