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REM speedwagon

What is about Berlin that makes the big daddies of rock’n’roll dip their albums in the city’s unnameable charms?

columns Updated: May 16, 2012 14:57 IST
Indrajit Hazra

What is about Berlin that makes the big daddies of rock’n’roll dip their albums in the city’s unnameable charms? David Bowie had his ‘Berlin trilogy’; U2 reached their heights across the twin peaks of Achtung Baby and Zoorapa actively inspired by and conspiring with Berlin; and now REM brings their 15th album from the dungeons of Berlin’s Hansa recording studios — along with studios in Nashville, New Orleans and Portland, but it’s Berlin-licked alright.

Collapse Into Now catches the trinity of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills catching their breath and letting it go in short, loud snaps. There’s a lot of sonic serration you can get your fingers cut on in this album on.

‘Discoverer’, a spittle song with heavy hooks and Stipe stutters, harks back to earlier REM days. What it lacks in Buddha-like solemnity, the track makes up with a genteel anger. “Just the slightest bit of finesses/might have made a little less mess/but it was what it was!” ‘Hai-ya!’ self-inflicted karate chop for all 40-pluses delivered.

In the same mould, ‘All the best’ has the wavy disposition of ‘Losing my religion’, but with an unshaved sound and drums a-pounding. When Stipe sings, “It’s just like me to overstay my welcome, man”, following it up with “Let’s sing and rhyme/let’s give it one more time/let’s show the kids how to do it”, REM is looking at the mirror, finds a 21-year-old band from Athens, Georgia, staring back and wondering, ‘How can we have some fun now?’

‘Überlin’ takes the basic DNA of the song ‘Drive’ from the band’s 1992 album Automatic for the People — down to the ‘Hey kids’ being switched with ‘Hey now’ — and turns it into a hickory dock number that’s more suited for a broad street than a dark autobahn. ‘Oh my heart’ follows, a folksy track with the Roy Orbison-like voice of singer-songwriter and REM’s touring second guitarist Scott McCaughey joining in the shaky, overdubbed chorus.

Calmness descends in ‘It happened today’, an early sunshine-friendly song, with a lot of nature-loving ‘aaahs’ and ‘hooray hoorays’. You hear Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder join the choir with his high-moaned Nusrat Fateh Ali bit. ‘Every day is yours to win’ lilts too much and Stipe’s over-dependance on ‘hey yeahs’ force me to move on to the perfectly darling of a song, ‘Mine smell like honey’.

Gary Glitter-style glam rock joins forces with REM poetics, where we go through a nozzle-burst of notes. ‘Walk it back’ is a quiet detour that leads us to the nice bollocker of ‘Alligator aviator autopilot antimatter’ with the happy punkish voice of Canadian singer Peaches filling in the gaps.

Power pop gets a chumpy endorsement from the boys in ‘That someone is you’. ‘Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I’ is a lullaby for the rocking chair. And if you missed Patti Smith the first time round (in ‘Discoverer’), she accompanies the slow guitar pedals — you look around to check whether Neil Young’s entered the room — after Stipe has decided to do his own Patti slam poetry while the music curls on.

Collapse into now, as the name suggests, is a fine accordian-crunch of REM’s various sounds down the years. It can be darn nice when you get a ‘Best of REM’ album with all new songs.

Sound installation

I don’t want to sound like an undescended testament, but if I wanted to listen to a Karlheinz Stockhausen album with Thom Yorke on guest vocals, I would have listened to the Swedish composer’s Kontra-Punkte with Radiohead’s OK Computer playing simultaneously.

So listening to Radiohead’s much awaited and quite descended album The King of Limbs, I am left hoping that I start liking it at some stage. Tracks like ‘Bloom’ (seemingly ‘constructed’ for a video installation at Tate Modern), ‘Feral’ (sounding like hairy caterpillars dancing the rhumba to warm sounds) provide amniotic fluid music. Even the YouTubeable ‘Lotus flower’ becomes less exciting without York doing his Beckett tramp-on-acid dance. For me, the frenetic energy of ‘Morning Mr Pagpie’ makes it in the ‘Hey, it’s a proper song!’ category, while ‘Little by little’ is a sinister little beauty, sounding like a song made out of the guitar strums of the Beatles’ ‘Blackbirds’ . A deep hmm.