Last September, R.E.M. wrapped up the final session for their new album, "Collapse Into Now," in Nashville. The next morning, guitarist Peter Buck started driving cross-country to his home in Portland, Ore. "I like to drive, it allows you to decompress," he says. "I got in my car at 6 a.m. and listened to my iPod for four hours. Then I decided to listen to our record. I remember thinking, 'This is, song for song, the best thing we've ever done.'"
Bassist Mike Mills agrees, calling "Collapse Into Now," out March 8 on Warner Bros., "our best record since 'Out of Time'," the group's 1991 hit. "We took the shackles off and wrote whatever sounded good — balls-to-the-wall rockers, slow sad songs, great mid-tempo songs in the tradition of R.E.M. We had quality, top to bottom."
The album also marks a crossroads for Buck, Mills and singer Michael Stipe. It is their last record for Warner, their label since the late '80s. And after spending 2008 on the road for that year's "Accelerate," the trio chose not to tour behind the new album. "We don't tour to prop up records — that's not why we play live music," Mills says. "That's the thing about R.E.M. If we don't feel it, we don't go."
"We were pretty sure we weren't touring, going into this record," Buck says. "There was nothing to distract us. And it felt really good." As for R.E.M.'s free-agent future, "we've talked about it a little bit. There's no rush. This record isn't even out yet." Mills puts it this way: "We have the option of doing anything we want — and no pressure to do anything."
Buck and Mills began working on new material in March 2009, recording demos in Portland with guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin, then passing the tracks to Stipe for vocal and lyrical consideration. The band cut the album's 12 songs in four three-week bursts, two of them in New Orleans and one last summer in Berlin. "Collapse Into Now" veers in mood and velocity from the drone-and-stomp opener, "Discoverer," and the high-speed sparkle of "Mine Smell Like Honey" to "Oh My Heart," a hymn of love to the Crescent City with deep-blue brass by the local band Bonerama, and the melancholy drive of "It Happened Today," which features the ecstatic moan of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.
But, Mills insists, "they're all pretty much first or second takes," noting that the backing track for the piano-based ballad "Walk It Back" was actually a rehearsal. "When we cut it again, it sounded formal and strained." The action-poem fury of "Blue," the album's closing track, came out of a last-minute idea Buck had in Berlin. The band played it once. "Then Michael said, 'I've got something that goes with that,'" Buck recalls. Patti Smith added her chantlike vocal in Nashville.
"I want to be proud. ... This is my time," Stipe declares in "Blue," and that faith in something better, waiting just around the corner, runs throughout the album. Mills cites the song "Überlin": "That character is in trouble but doing his best to get through it. He's gonna make it. But it wasn't easy." Buck feels that way about R.E.M., who issued their first single in 1981 and endured a rough decade of rebirth after the 1997 exit of drummer Bill Berry. "This represents who we are now, in a great way," Buck says of "Collapse." "A lot of people say we did our best work in the early '90s. But 15 years later, here we are again."
This article appears in the Feb. 17 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and will appear in the Feb. 4.