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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Now, a return for the rock band R.E.M. Today, it released its 15th album. And our critic Will Hermes says R.E.M.'s "Collapse Into Now" is the band's best album in years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE BEST")

M: (Singing) So over me. So pie in my face.

WILL HERMES: R.E.M. is a band that fans form intense bonds with; I'm one of them. In the '80s and '90s, they were my platonic ideal of a rock band - mysterious yet straightforward, arty yet unpretentious, noisy, delicate, serious, goofy and heroic, more for their creative empathy than their egos.

But by the aughts, they'd lost their drummer, and their music suggested they'd maybe lost their religion, too, so to speak. Now, they've made an entire album about getting it back, and they're not just preaching to the converted.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE BEST")

M: (Singing) I just have to get that off my chest. Now, it's time to give on with the best. All the best. All the best. All the best. All the best, the best, the best. It's just like me to overstay my welcome bless.

HERMES: That's so R.E.M., to begin a spectacular comeback album with Michael Stipe singing about overstaying his welcome. It's passive aggressiveness turned into an aesthetic strategy.

But R.E.M. don't make records about themselves, really. Michael Stipe is part of a generation of singers who often presume to channel a collective voice - like in this song, which suggests a Hurricane Katrina narrative but also casts a wider net.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH MY HEART")

M: (Singing) Storm didn't kill me. The government changed. Hear the answer call. Hear the song rearranged. Hear the trees, the ghosts and the buildings sing with the wisdom to reconcile this thing. It's sweet and it's sad and it's true. How it doesn't look bitter on you. Oh, my heart. Oh, my heart. Oh, my heart. Oh, my heart. Oh, my heart.

HERMES: R.E.M. rock out pretty good here. But it's also great to hear a return to the songwriting style of "Automatic for the People" and "Out of Time," those acoustic anthems that offer optimism and consolation without being corny.

I also love the weird final cut, where Michael Stipe does an inverted duet with his pal and mentor Patti Smith, Smith singing the verses while Stipe does the poetic ranting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

HERMES: By my math, "Collapse Into Now" is R.E.M.'s best record in about 16 and a half years. It does everything they've ever done well, even the thing that first defined them: making profoundly moving rock 'n' roll out of singing that strictly speaking, is unintelligible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SIEGEL: Will Hermes was reviewing R.E.M.'s new album, "Collapse Into Now."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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