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R.E.M. successfully collapses into its comfort zone with latest release

In the past 28 years, R.E.M. has released 15 albums that frequently walk similar lines. The group’s latest, “Collapse Into Now,” continues this trend by stably walking a fine line between fast, up-tempo guitars and slow, personal piano-driven serenades.

This does not mean bad things for the trio, as their consistency frequently works to their advantage for the most part on this album.

“Collapse Into Now” kicks off with two of those quick, pop guitar songs, “Discoverer” and “All the Best,” before transitioning to the album’s runaway highlight, “Uberlin.”

With lead singer Michael Stipe’s short pauses in the verses, the track is very reminiscent of the band’s “Drive” from way back in 1992. It may not be the next big hit from them, though it probably deserves to be.

A group that channels one of its own hits nearly 20 years later tells you where they are in their career; not the decline, but past the stage where they’ll likely surprise you. The rest of the album fits that description fairly well. Nothing is surprising, but little is of poor quality.

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder shows up for backing vocals on “It Happened Today,” while punk legend Patti Smith guest stars on “Discoverer” and the closing track, “Blue.”

One’s full appreciation of R.E.M. will be determined by the opinion of that closer, which is more of Stipe reading a poem than singing. Compared to the rest of the album, it feels sluggish until Smith shows up with her wonderful voice to sing us out.

The very personal “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” leads the pack in terms of the slower songs, with Stipe questioning himself and his life. It’s a familiar topic for the band, one that shouldn’t feel out of place on any of their albums.

While certainly not a classic, I don’t think the band really cares. They may never reach the heights of hits like “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts,” or “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” ever again, but they don’t seem to mind. R.E.M. has become a band interested in making fine music, and if that is what makes them happy, more power to them.

Unfortunately, it’s a step back from their last album, 2008’s “Accelerate,” which was new and different from the rest of much of their catalog. “Accelerate” made them into a fully formed rock group again, one that doesn’t care as much about ballads or pianos. They led with their guitars and were proud of it.

“Collapse Into Now” features only some of that same sound, and that leads to good songs, but lacking a coherent album flow.

R.E.M., in their own special way, pushed the envelope in 2008. Three years later, they’ve walked back from that edge and put together a pleasant group of songs that can sometimes feel out of place with each other.

Let’s hope the next album reverts back to their envelope-pushing style.

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