Not wishing to make another mid-tempo, acoustic led album, R.E.M. set for a new course yet again. This time it was more in line with what they originally intended on Automatic for the People: a feedback ridden, rip-roaring rock record that saw the band operating as a foursome more than any record since Document. And the rock in question was also a vast departure from what was found on the latter I.R.S records. The rock was described by Peter Buck in a quote that, I will admit does make me roll my eyes a little bit:
“[It’s a] ‘rock’ record, with the rock in quotation marks… There’s a nudge, nudge, wink, wink feel to the whole record. Like, it’s a rock record, but is it really?”
Well, yes Peter. Yes it is. But if we follow this logic then the quotations around this “rock” are a mix of the music which the band grew up with, and the acts that were influential and popular at the time. From the bands formative years we have the glam rock of early David Bowie and the electric folk/proto-grunge stylings of Neil Young. And then on the other side we have acts like My Bloody Valentine and Nirvana, both of whom seemed very much inspired by the cryptic nature of the band’s early records.
Kurt Cobain would, of course, have another effect on this album’s construction. During the month in which Monster was recording the Nirvana front man and close friend of Michael Stipe would commit suicide after a long period of self destruction; the song “Let Me In” would end up a tribute to Cobain. The album itself was a tribute to River Phoenix, another friend of Stipe whose death was a symbolic implosion by the consequences of fame. And, like Fables of the Reconstructions the making of the album had severely consequences on the band unit, to the point where they were on the verge of breaking up.
All of that lends itself to the way that Monster sounds, being the darkest sounding album the band had released since that aforementioned Fables. It is a seedy album, one filled with sex and drugs and a cynical outlook that gives the apocalyptic imagery of Document a run for its Bank of America money. And as well as all that, Stipe was also reacting to Automatic for the People when it came to the album’s perspective. After singing so much in the first person for the first three Warner Bros. records, or detailing inspirational storylines, Stipe would feel the need to contrast that period by singing from the point of view of characters. Unnamed characters mind you, but dark contemptuous kinds that refocus the first person points-of-view to offer satirical criticism. Although the themes and ideas are more obvious, Stipe’s processed, shoegaze inspired vocals and character encompassment is the closest he has come to being as distancing and enigmatic as the band’s four earliest albums.
But wait a second, an experimental rock album that conveys the internal emotion of its narrator by embodying different personas? An album that is a reaction to an outwardly sincere period of the band’s work, almost resulting in the band’s split, and both embraces and condemns the lifestyles of fame? Despite how much I’ve joked about this throughout the series, Monster is the album that feels most like what that other famous 80’s band, U2, was doing during this period. Specifically a combination of the studio experiments that U2 were doing and the public perception of the band in light of the ZooTV. Monster sounds like the record that people describe Achtung Baby as.
And after all of that, the band turmoil, the rougher sound and the harsh themes, how is the “rock” music on Monster? Well as a soundscape it is certainly more interesting than U2’s “rock in quotes” album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. It is both as biting and as blurry as the bear on the cover, though like the creature’s eyes still displays an element of vulnerability (here it is in the ballads). And Mike Mills and Bill Berry get chances to shine way more than on the previous two albums. Still, as a whole, the record has a major problem, that being its continuous similarity. This is the first R.E.M album where I felt that the songs themselves did not match the ambition of the album, and that is more interesting to talk about then it is to actually listen to (probably emphasised by how long this section is).
There are some great songs on Monster, though. The first just so happens to be the one the album opens with. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” is named after a puzzling sentence said by two attackers of a newscaster, and although it is not really about the story in question it is probably the most politically charged song on the album. Referencing the Linklater film Slacker (“withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy”), and containing pointed lines like “you said irony was the shackles of youth”, it appears to be a song about the tension between the irony-led Generation X and the movement that was going to be called the New Sincerity. At the same time it has a very biting tone by both Stipe’s delivery and Buck’s guitar, the contrast most apparent by the Peter Buck solo that is both forceful and feels like the notes are going backwards. It’s the kind of subject that David Foster Wallace would make an a thousand page book about. This is done in a four minute, four chord song.
“Crush with Eyeliner” is also about identity, but more in line with the personality of the rest of the album. It’s a “love” song – like those Stipe said he would never write – but the nature of the affection is always brought into question. With the references to Frankenstein ( it’s actually monster) and “I’ll do anything” it is kind of like it is from the point of view of someone overcome with feelings that they can see themselves as a submissive to this persons affections. And with the “woman-child” line, we can’t say for certain how old this woman (if indeed she is?) and if this relationship is more predatory or more Lolita. It’s quite campy in the vocals, with what sounds occasionally like a Bob Dylan impression amidst all the wavy guitars. I can’t say I like the tremolo guitar work here, but I do think it’s held together by the tight rhythm work by Mills and Berry counteracting the drifting guitars.
Back to the U2 comparisons, “King of Comedy” is the one that most shows these influence, with processed vocals and synth lines that sound like something from Zooropa, like how the disconnected vocals here have the same distancing effect as “Numb” (the synths would also be prevalent on their next release). This is also Monster’s fullest embrace of irony, and despite the distancing is one of the record’s catchiest songs. I think in part because having a repetitive “Make your money” structure that also has the album’s most on-the-nose lyrics about capitalism, seeking fame and how he is “not a commodity” (all theme’s prevalent in the Scorcese movie from which this song gets its title).
The intentionally dull delivery is used again for “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream,” though here the guitars, synths and piano have a floating quality perfectly applicable to the dream feel that the title is going for. That is until the thuds of the treble piano notes, making the whole scene feel like the hangover it is. The character here is looking for a sexual conquest, euphemised as “an interruption.” The high falsetto’s here remind me of Bono’s MacPhisto, though the character Stipe plays here sounds more perverse and desperate.
“Star 69” continues with those desperations in a much more direct, punkish way, and seems to come from the other side of the equation. A cacophonous mix of vocals that adds to that hangover feeling, it is though we are receiving the barrage of obsessive calls from various sexual conquests. Although it has one of the most fun grooves on the album and a beefy bass, the repetition instead of revealing new depths just ends up being slight. Still, it’s probably the best song name after automatic call back on old phones. And I presume the sexual pun, unless I’ve just got an impossibly dirty mind. Hey, given its outdated technology now that is how a lot of people will interpret it.
After all this experimenting, Side One ends with the most traditional sounding ballad of the first half. There are still those intentionally clashing strings and feedback to show the songs darker edge, but otherwise the arpeggio playing by Buck starts off extremely similar to “Everybody Hurts.” It has a much folk/country sound than the rest of the album, and just like other folk songs in the Warner Bros. era this song first appears to be much more direct, but has a hidden edge to it. Soon it becomes clear that is from another obsessive point of view, and all the platitudes like the “you will be mine” chorus have the air of something much more abusive.
Side Two fools you with percussion that sounds like something from the Rolling Stones, before pulling a 180 and moving into something much more soulful. With lines like “Ugly girls know their fate/Anybody can get laid” and “you come/I’m ashamed” I’ll give you three guesses to say what “Tongue” is about…well done to you. In fact with the explicit sex and the falsetto/R&B influence here, “Tongue” reminds me of some kind of Prince pastiche. I do love the piano work and backing organ here, as though it is an Automatic for the People track that has been perverted. But getting here perfectly exemplifies the problem of the sex and obsession on this album; it gets too repetitive.
That’s also the case for “Bang and Blame”, but it does make up for that by being another great track. Being another song that appears to be from the opposite point of view, it is criticises the other’s party for the emotional, psychological and even physical damage they are doing to the other person. As this seeming verbal shakedown is occurring, the tremolo work by Buck is fantastically suspenseful, punctuated with the tight and bouncing line, before erupting in the chorus just as in a Pixies track. The dynamic between male and female is made more apparent by the backing vocals River Phoenix’s sister Rain, straight out of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues Fame (…), and that would in turn make the “perils of fame” theme more apparent to an audience of the time. But conversely it has a slight element of flaccidity to it, and with the fade out as opposed to an abrupt stop it suggests this will happen again anyway, despite the protests. If I had to pick a song that best encapsulates Monster, it would be this one.
The album clearly returns to issues of identity with “I Took Your Name,” and returns to the tremolo sounds found on the key identity track “Crush with Eyeliner.” The track from the “I wore the clothes you wanted line” seems to be another critique of the commodification of rock stars in the manner of “King of Comedy, but the topic also reminds me of the final third of Vertigo, where Judy has to take the name .of Madeline to placate the mind of the obsessive Jeffries. In a more cynical view, it could even be a critique of marriage and the compromises couples have to take. Unfortunately, the “Crush with Eyeliner” repetition doesn’t make me like either track more, and with the exception of some of the guitar licks I think it is less appealing.
Fortunately this moves into one of the highlights of the album, the shoegaze inspired “Let Me In.” (Is this where the Let the Right One In remake got its title from? I might like that movie a little more). Here the rock in brackets becomes much more apparent, as the guitars bleed into one another along with the organ sounds, the pain in the music is more than accounted for in the lyrics. Stipe here is appealing to both Kurt and River, but in the album context this album is a screed to experience some kind of human connection. I said before that “Tongue” felt like a Automatic for the People perversion, but here Stipe has the stings of death and mortality that many of the best songs from that record also feel. I kind of wish the whole record was this, but that would have appealed to very little people.
That though clashes with what is the most garage rock song – a la The Sonics – on the album, “Circus Envy.”* It unfortunately isn’t as strong as the songs that come before and after, as the sound is too fuzzy and repetitive without being tempting for those reasons, but the lo-fi aesthetic lends plenty to the lyrics that reference both the “monster” and the “awful feeling” that have so defined this album. Also the line “If I were you I’d really run from me/I’d really really wish that I were you” is the big climatic line of the record, with the character recognising their own reprehensibility. It’s Monster’s “I liked it. I was good at it.”
But, as though the character is unable to let go of all their desires, this moves on to the conclusion of the album, and another highlight, “You”. It has the kind of feedback folk feel that Neil Young would be doing for Dead Man a year later, along with Middle Eastern-style guitar licks. It’s probably worth comparing the guitar lick here to the one in “Begin the Begin” to get the sense of the album’s different philosophies. And it also merges all the themes of identity, sex and obsession the album has tackled with, the protagonist having lost their loved ones, and all the repetitions of “You” eventually revealing themselves as a projection of the self. It’s the proper conclusion for the album. But it still felt like I got that conclusion a few tracks before.
Monster is definitely my least favourite R.E.M. record so far (that isn’t a collection of B-Sides), with the music and the themes treading similar waters for too long of a time. I’m still willing to call it a “good” record (more than when I first listened to it, at least”: there are some amazing individual moments that are the reasons playlists were invented. But regardless of the distancing effect of characters and irony, I’m no more or less tired than when I hear artists discuss these topics from a more sincere point of view.
It’s odd that an album that was designed so much to be like a garage-rock record would be the album that R.E.M. would finally go out on tour again for. But this would end up resulting in a net positive; after an album about being an area rock star, the next album would make that more apparent on the outside, too.
R.E.M Album Rankings
- Automatic for the People
- Lifes Rich Pageant
- Fables of the Reconstruction
- Out of Time
- Dead Letter Office/ Chronic Town (at some point I’m going to split these two)
*Trivia: At my secondary school (middle school in America) one of my teachers had a pop folk rock band called Circus Envy. Only this month do I finally learn it was named after an R.E.M. song, and an ill-fitting one at that. There stuff is on Spotify; brought back some nostalgic memories.