Who Made the Best R.E.M. Record This Year? The Decemberists or R.E.M.? Are our favorite bands allowed to reinvent themselves? Rhetorical question. Of course, they are. Just like we’re allowed to reconsider whether they’re still our faves. Nearly twenty years separate the first R.E.M. record and the first Strokes record, but only a few weeks separate their latest records. R.E.M.’s Collapse into Now came out March 7th, and the Strokes’ Angles came out Tuesday. Both bands are at equally important points in their careers, at the intersection of who they used to be and who they want to be now. In this two-part post, I’ll talk about these records, and where they leave the bands and their fans. * * * So who wins the contest of making the best R.E.M. record this year? The Decemberists or…R.E.M.? It’s close. Closer than both bands might like. Let’s say the Decemberists made a great record that sounds like R.E.M. circa yesteryear, and R.E.M. made a great record that sounds like R.E.M. circa today. Collapse into Now finds R.E.M. in advance-and-retreat mode – expanding upon some of the strengths of 2008′s excellent Accelerate, while simultaneously relying upon some of the strengths of their earliest work. The conventional wisdom is that Acclerate was an attempt to hit reset by a band that had become too self-important. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Well, after the trio of albums that followed drummer Bill Berry’s health-related departure – Up, Reveal, and the dismal Around the Sun — it needed fixing. Last year they released Live at the Olympia, a two-cd set recorded at a rehearsal (as Michael Stipe repeatedly reminds the audience, “This is not a show!”) at a club in Dublin, Ireland. The band offered work-in-progress versions of songs that would appear on Accelerate alongside reworked versions of songs from across their diverse discography. The result is revelatory – a document of three guys remembering that they really like to rock. But R.E.M. has always had an uneasy relationship with the r-word, engaging it only when it suits them, with tongues firmly in cheeks. Think about “Can’t Get There from Here” from Fables of the Reconstruction. It kicks ass almost in spite of itself. “Begin the Begin” from Life’s Rich Pageant and “Finest Worksong” from Document are heavy, but they’re like grad-level comments on the idiom. Ditto “The One I Love.” And Stipe even referred to Monster as a “big dumb rock album.” (Pitchfork called it “an exercise in skeletal glam and sly, swaggering pastiche.”) So when the aptly-titled Accelerate hit the gas and cleared the carburetor, where would that road lead them? To a better place? Or maybe to a place where they could reconcile the disparate elements of their studio work and their newfound interest in playing live. “Discoverer” is arena-rock R.E.M. Stipe is in full-on yell mode, clipped and almost breathless. It works, mostly, the same way that “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (Monster) worked. “All the Best” is of-a-piece with the the spiker stuff on Accelerate. “Let’s show the kids how to do it fine” could have been a statement of purpose the last time around, but this time it seems less so – not a boast to us, but a challenge to themselves. “Überlin” is the first gear shift. It’s acoustic, but not slow – “Losing My Religion” from Out of Time with some shimmy (love the handclaps). “I will make it through the day and then the day becomes the night, I will make it through the night.” “Oh My Heart” is basically “Half a World Away” (Out of Time) which in turn was an update on “Swan Swan H” (Life’s Rich Pageant). This is probably the closest they sound to the Decemberists qua R.E.M. – lots of mando, and an organ? – but the lyrics are less fussy/Meloyan, and more simple/Stipean. Sweet, sad, true, etc. “It Happened Today” reminds me of something off the vastly underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi or the vastly overrated Automatic for the People. There’s a throwback feel, though, to the momentary “ooh-ohh” in the bridge, and when Mike Mills hits the high lonesome, they’re onto something, old and new. “Every Day Is Yours to Win” doesn’t do much for me – slightly overcooked at first, but it manages to fall into a nice groove. And “Walk It Back” is pretty, for better and worse, but Stipe’s voice is perfect. “Mine Smell Like Honey” is a gem, though. It’s a rock song, but the kind of rock song this sometimes rock band kills: Anthemic, and appropriately vague, with Mill’s harmonies lifting it above the mundane. “Aligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” is another rocker, but this one recalls not only Accelerate, but also the swagger of “Wake-Up Bomb” (New Adventures). “That Someone Is You” is garage band-y – “I Believe” (Life’s Rich Pageant) is the touchstone here, but this track wouldn’t sound of place next to anything off the early rarities collection Dead Letter Office. “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” should suck more than it does. “Blue” starts like “Country Feedback” (Out of Time) but instead of a tired lament, it’s a rapid-fire spoken word piece. Patti Smith moans in the background about Cinderella boys, and Stipe talks about…himself? The closing line, “20th Century, collapse into now,” recalls the closing line of “Electrolite” from New Adventures. But if what it lacks in deadpan cool, it more than makes up for in substance. The past? Become the present. And who we become, and how we handle new challenges, will be informed by who we were. And then they reprise “Discoverer” (pretty reminiscent of phan-phave “Tweezer Reprise.”). Q.E.D. Recommendation: Yep, get it. J Freitag changed his name to Frequent C. Kenneth for a brief period in 1994. You can read the rest of his posts in the Liner Notes archive by clicking that little link there.