Collapse Into Now Warner Music****

REM’s last studio album ( Accelerate) found them emerging from the creative doldrums. Collapse Into Nowfinds them firing on all cylinders, and reigniting the chemistry that made them one of the US’s most vital bands.

Discoverer, the opening track, cuts a jagged swathe straight into the here and now, and the momentum continues through All the Bestand Überlin, the latter sounding like a ramped-up version of Drive. But though the band have dusted off their Byrdsian jangles and polished up their musical touchstones on Mine Smell Like Honey, they haven’t simply retreated into the safety of their past. There’s enough wilfully obtuse carry-on in such songs as It Happened Today(with guest vocals from Eddie Vedder), the metronomic Every Day Is Yours to Win, the plaintive lament of Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I, and the beat-poet psychobabble of closing track Blue, in which Patti Smith intones “Cinderella Boy, you’ve lost your shoe” over Stipe’s internalised monologue.

Stipe’s lyrics wrestle with modern themes, and his free-associating wordsmithery on such tracks as Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter(with guest vocals from Peaches) is as effective as any mic-busting rapper. On That Someone Is You (probably the snappiest song) he rhymes “Sharon Stone Casino” with “Scarface Al Pacino” without blinking, and tosses enough knockout lines into his melange of words and impressions to make you believe he’s not just randomly ranting. And though Stipe’s voice sounds rougher and raspier than its Everybody Hurtshigh-point, he still puts plenty of cracked passion into Oh My Heart, the band’s ode to New Orleans.

In producer Jacknife Lee, REM have found someone who can wade through their creative sludge and make it sound crisp and clear. The album was recorded in such disparate locations as New Orleans, Nashville and Berlin’s Hansa studios. Mike Mills calls this their best album since 1991’s Out of Time; Peter Buck reckons that, “song for song”, it’s their best ever. That’s pushing it a bit, but you can see why they’re enthusiastic. With Collapse Into Now, all of REM’s odd components seem to have fallen nicely into place.

Download tracks: Überlin, Discoverer, Mine Smell Like Honey