1:01pm

Wed March 2, 2011
First Listen

First Listen: R.E.M., 'Collapse Into Now'

R.E.M. has followed a familiar trajectory for big bands that have been around a long time. After releasing a few groundbreaking albums in the early and mid-'80s, the band signed with a major label and became one of the biggest acts in the world.

Michael Stipe and company owned the early '90s with the albums Out of Time, Automatic for the People and Monster. But, inevitably, the band stumbled with later releases, especially after drummer Bill Berry retired from the group in 1997. Not much from its past several albums has fully captured the magic of R.E.M.'s earlier work, but the new Collapse Into Now sure does.

The band's most rewarding album in 15 years, Collapse Into Now is a beautifully produced collection of intimate and reflective ballads ("Oh My Heart") and distorted, thumping rock numbers ("Discoverer," "All the Best"). While Bill Berry is still absent, the record features stunning appearances by Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder, Peaches and other guests.

Highlights include the anthemic singalong toward the end of "It Happened Today" — as joyous and infectious as anything R.E.M. has done, the song brings to mind classics like "Me in Honey" or "Belong" from Out of Time. The haunting closer "Blue," mixes experimental, ambient sounds with Stipe's somber narration, before morphing back to the driving melodies of the opening track, "Discoverer" — as if to say this is really the beginning, not the end, and there's still plenty to celebrate.

As a longtime (and huge) R.E.M. fan, I figured we were done getting truly great, inspired albums from the group. But Collapse Into Now reaffirms R.E.M. as a vital, thoughtful and gifted band with plenty left to say. I can't wait to hear what comes next.

Collapse Into Now will stream here in its entirety until its release on March 8. Please leave your thoughts on the album in the comments section below. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.