I’ve been a longtime fan of R.E.M., but somewhere after “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People,” I lost the thread. Part of that could have been the mind-numbing omnipresence of “Losing My Religion” or I just had enough R.E.M. in my musical canon. Maybe once I could actually understand what Michael Stipe was saying after he mumbled all those years, the mystery was gone--not that I have any clue what he’s singing about even when I can understand him.

“Collapse Into Now,” the band’s 15th studio album out March 8,  has demanded that I listen to it. For one thing, the set-up campaign is one of the best R.E.M.’s label, Warner Bros., has coordinated in years for the band, but, more importantly, the music is among the strongest Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills (I still miss drummer Bill Berry) has made in more than a decade.

The new album, supposedly R.E.M.’s last for WB, is wonderfully retro in that it contains all the elements that drew me to R.E.M. so long ago, including mandolins, sparse harmonies, and beautiful backing vocals from Mills, whose singing contributions to R.E.M. have always been underrated  in my mind. But it doesn’t sound in the least as if R.E.M. had run out of ideas so they decided to imitate old songs in order to re-capture past glory. Instead, it sounds like whatever musical shackles seemed to be holding them down over the last several years, have come unbound. They seem interested in what they have so say again, and so am I.

Many of the songs, like opening shot, “Discoverer,” are instant earworms, while others, like the gorgeous “Uberlin” sneakily grow more appealing upon repeated listenings. 

“It’s just like me to overstay my welcome,” Stipe sings in “All the Best,” a high speed,tune that sounds like early “Radio Free Europe” era R.E.M. crossed with Patti Smith, but “Collapse” feels more like a much desired return.

“It Happened Today” starts off spare and folky and builds, until it explodes into gorgeous vocalizations from Stipe and Mills. It’s Beach Boys-by-way-of-Athens, Ga. Plus, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder shows up to support his longtime friends.  That homage to Brian Wilson continues on “Every Day Is Yours To Win,” an often sweet, lovely ballad held together by a twinkly melodic riff and cascading harmonies at the very end.

“Mine Smell like Honey,” opens with the ferocity of “Rockville” then goes into a tune so driving yet melodic that it’s impossible not to sing along, especially as Mills subtly harmonizes in the background. The drumming  is the strongest on the album. For fans of R.E.M.’s long-ago patented jangly rock, this is the standout.

The title alone makes “Alligator Aviator Autopilot” worth the effort, but for us long timers, there’s something wonderfully stream-of-consciousness about the song that brings a smile to your face. None of it makes any sense, but the punk sensibility, sheer adrenalin, and Peaches’ participation (both in singing along to the chorus and a spoken refrain) will have you jumping up and down as you listen and saying to strangers: “Hey, hey alligator, you’ve got a lot to learn.” It could be a new catchphrase. I plan to use it at least once a day.

Producer Jacknife Lee keeps the trains running on time here: the album is punchy and precise with very little fat: bright, spritely “That Someone Is You” clocks in at 1.44 and that feels just right.

There are a few missteps, nothing horrible, but tracks that I found myself wanting to skip over, including “Oh My Heart,” about going back to New Orleans and the anguish the protagonist feels, although the city’s resilience is clear. While undoubtedly heartfelt, it seems out of sync with the  rest of album.  Same with the gentle “Walk It Back,” which felt mundane in comparison to the other tunes.

“Blue,” the album ender, is a near six-minute, largely spoken-word manifesto of sorts from Stipe (which also contains the album’s title), that, quite honestly, if he weren’t a rock star, someone could think were maniacal ramblings. Instead, it’s an interesting, sometimes hypnotic, piece of art-rock with Smith,  one of Stipe’s musical heroes, added for extra dimension.

The song ends with a reprise of “Discoverer” to bring the whole project full circle. Who knows where R.E.M. goes from here. Oddly, they’ve announced that they have no plans to tour behind this album, which is a shame since several of the songs here practically stand up on their back haunches and beg to be played live. Plus, the band is making mini-movies, directed by the likes of James Franco, for each track. In the meantime, as R.E.M. figures out its next move, the band has delivered a wonderful reminder of what made us fall in love with them in the first place.