Upon listening to the new release from R.E.M., “Collapse Into Now,” I am less impressed with the originality of the record, the typically jangly Peter Buck strums, the now slightly more clear but still garbled Michael Stipe lyrics, the pining back-up vocals of Mike Mills as they scream out “I wanna be a lead singer.” All that is fine, better in many places than it has been on the last several records. However I find myself more taken with the impressive line-up of guest artists on this record and on many R.E.M. records throughout the years. Here are some of my favorites.
Q-Tip – The Outsiders – “Around the Sun:” Perhaps one of the most interesting things about R.E.M. following Bill Berry’s departure was that they continued on and continued to push boundaries. They used a lot more packaged drums, synthesizers, and such. Q-Tip had always been one of my favorite rappers with A Tribe Called Quest in particular. But when I saw his name on the liner sleeve for the then new R.E.M. record, “Around the Sun,” I was puzzled. Did he produce this song, I wondered? Nope, it was straight up Q-Tip. The Outsiders is something of a sonically futuristic song for R.E.M. All manner of computer sounds, reverb, with a Korg underscore for the first verse of the song until Peter Buck cuts the sonic silence. Michael sings a song about someone he knew, the way they were, the memory; but it’s not a longing in his fear; it’s almost clinical. Which makes the Q-Tip verse at the end of the song that much more impactful. The song all but ends; as the dissonance fades, the drums kick back in and Q-Tip sings his verse. His repetition of “I am not afraid,” in the end rewards the listener.
Kate Pierson – Me in Honey – “Out of Time:” So anyone who has turned on top 40 AOR radio in the last 20 years has heard the R.E.M./Kate Pierson song of record; “Shiny Happy People.” Of course the B-52 was in the studio so they of course recorded another track for the album; a track which is infinitely better: Me in Honey. Pierson is harmony the whole time, underscoring the bridge with her lovely vibrato. “It’s all the same to share the pain with me,” from Michael followed by their harmonizing, “Let me look what it’s doing to me,” is answered by when the two ask, “What about me?” To see me type it is not nearly as lovely as hearing the two of them singing it.
KRS-One – Radio Song – “Out of Time:” This song is the first track on “Out of Time” and in essence encapsulates the R.E.M. and KRS-One dilemma. In an age where rap stars were rapping about women and alcohol and drugs; KRS-One has always been much more interested in progress and advancing a tolerant and understanding world. KRS-One stands for “Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone.” The same for the alt-rockers R.E.M. who at the time were writing garbled pop about things like Agent Orange that no one could understand the words to. So when KRS-One sings, “…who are you obeying, day out and day in…DJ’s communicate to the masses, sex and violent classes; now our children grow up prisoners, all their life radio listeners,” the resonance should not be lost on those who know the source.
On this new R.E.M. record there are guest appearances from the likes of Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder, Peaches, Lenny Kaye, and Joel Gibb. It’s a good record and it’s a sad record. It’s the 15th record by the group and one can’t help but wonder how many more these guys have got in them. Whatever the future holds, we will always have the Shiny-Happy-End-of-the-World-As-We-Know-It-Stand-in-the-Place-Where-You-Live R.E.M. of our memory to remind us why they’re still so good. This massive group of past collaborators has let R.E.M. cross borders and genres and infused their way into some part of all of our lives.
What’s your favorite R.E.M. song (“Nightswimming”). Post your favorite song title below!