Ever since the departure of drummer Bill Berry, R.E.M. have been in a state of seemingly constant reinvention, so every piece of new music they put out is something of a revelation. Such is the case with the songs that have begun to surface from the band’s forthcoming album Collapse Into Now, which will hit stores in March of 2011. It will be their fifteenth original full-length and their fifth since they became a trio, and based on the two full-length tunes that the band has released (“Discoverer” and “It Happened Today”), they have found a groove that they began to play with on their last album (2008’s Accelerate).
The arc of R.E.M. has been unusual ever since they arguably ascended to (arguably) “Biggest Rock Band in the World” status around 1995 (in the wake of the release of the multi-platinum Monster and in the midst of a massive worldwide tour that seemed to go on forever). Near the end of that tour, drummer Bill Berry experienced some health issues (most notably a near-fatal brain aneurysm) and left the group to lead a quieter life. The remaining three members of R.E.M. — singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills — decided to soldier on as a trio and used the shift in personnel as an opportunity to explore new sounds and ideas. Following the release of New Adventures in Hi-Fi (which was recorded while on the road during the tour for Monster), the new version R.E.M. dropped the ambient Up, the Beach Boys-ian Reveal, the moody Around the Sun and the throwback-ish Accelerate.
Both “Discoverer” and “It Happened Today” take the sound the band tucked into on the latter album and pushes it a little deeper. “It Happened Today” is especially great, building a warm groove around a simple acoustic guitar riff. Stipe’s words remain delightfully inscrutable (even with the assistance of the lyrics video, it’s still somewhat impenetrable thanks to SAT-caliber words like “deference” and “allegory”), but his voice remains one of the greatest and most mysterious instruments in rock (it somehow sounds both tough and delicate thanks to a lived-in rasp).
When Accelerate dropped, everybody celebrated it as a return to form. But it was more like a reinvention of their old sound, and Collapse Into Now promises to continue on that trend. It appears as though we’ve arrived at R.E.M. Version Three — not bad for a band entering its fourth decade of existence.