The Classics 024

The Classics 024

Friday, 29 July 2016

(Warner Bros., 1994)
To this day (now) twenty-two years after it was originally released, R.E.M.’s ninth album, Monster, still feels like it should have been a risky record for the band to make. By then, the band had long since broken through the glass ceiling between the underground and the mainstream; they had become patron saints of the thinking man’s end of college rock (which later got annexed by alt- and is currently a province of the indie nation) and done it without actually playing anything “rocky” at all. They had done it by spinning pop and rhythm & blues with a tonne of underground interests and post-grad posturing, and won the hearts of tastemakers through the Eighties and Nineties (including but not limited to the editorial staff of the day at both Spin and Rolling Stone, the members of Nirvana and Sonic Youth – to name only the greatest cultural coups). Those touchstone victories had won them attention and albums like Murmur, Out Of Time and Automatic For The People had won them an enormous base of devoted fans, but the question, “Will fans accept an R.E.M. who is interested in swaggering through a dozen crunchy, unabashed rock songs” was a great unknown which, in retrospect, could have set the band back at least five years if it had failed.

…And to this day too, many fans still feel themselves stiffen and the little hairs on their necks bristle with lives of their own as the first D chord of “What’s The Frequency Kenneth?” hits their ears. It hits hard because the presentation of the song just feels so alien; there is no swing in “Kenneth” like there was in “Radio Song” and no recessed anger or misgiving as there was in “Everybody Hurts” or “Man On The Moon,” it just plays like a straight-up rock song on rock’s (not alt-‘s or indie’s) terms. There is an obvious earnestness about it too; the fuzzy guitar line that Peter Buck lays down feels like the release that he has been aching to play for years and, because Bill Berry and Mike Mills back him so truly and tightly, it’s easy to feel like they’ve been waiting for him to do it too. That kind of play can spur even the most jaded imaginations, but Michael Stipe takes “What’s The Frequency Kenneth?” to another level in a different (and unexpected) direction by keeping the structure which won fans on albums like Reckoning and Fables of The Reconstruction, but changing the form to a more conventionally rockist style and just letting it all hang out; granted, Stipe doesn’t abandon poetic forms here, but lines like “I was brain-dead, locked out, numb, not up to speed/ I thought I’d pegged you an idiot’s dream/ Tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen” instantly feel more active in tone than the singer has really allowed himself to be before. At the time of its release, Stipe said that R.E.M. had intended for Automatic For The People to be a punk album but it ultimately went quiet – with “What’s The Frequency Kenneth,” the desire to make a punk album (well, the closest that R.E.M. would ever come to that) seems simultaneously renewed and realized.

The sort of “punk” air and attitude endures throughout tracks like “Crush With Eyeliner” (which was reportedly written by Stipe about Courtney Love – although given that Love was the one to make the claim, it’s a little suspect), “Star 69” and “Bang and Blame.” Each courses with punk energy and flavor and features beefier performances from Buck than the R.E.M. standard, while “King Of Comedy,” “You” and “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” keep a more acerbic wit about them, regardless of the volume levels at which they may have been captured. In effect, the band basically breaks punk apart for Monster and separates the ingredients – the “sound” and the “spirit” – into separate quadrants on the album instead of running them all together and blurring the lines. That the different styles are separated like they are (and included along with the absolutely beautiful ballad “Strange Currencies”) produces a great movement which propels the album along and keeps it from stagnating; each turn keeps the brightness and excitement flowing on the album, even when the tone gets more melancholy or vitriolic (see “King Of Comedy,” for example).

That sort of split between the “sound” and “spirit” of punk, as well as how those two sides interact with each other within the running of Monster is what makes it unique within the context of R.E.M.’s discography as well as within the context of modern rock is what continues to make this album compelling, twenty-two years after its release. Did R.E.M. make other albums which qualify as classics? Certainly – Murmur, Green, Life’s Rich Pageant and Automatic For The People all rank – but Monster remains a brand apart from them all. There’s nothing like it; Monster is a classic album which stands as a brand apart from a catalogue characterized by classic works. [BILL ADAMS]


Monster remains in print. Buy it here on Amazon.

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