R.E.M. – Monster

Monster (1994)

C+

1. What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? 2. Crush With Eyeliner 3. King Of Comedy 4. I Don’t Sleep, I Dream 5. Star 69 6. Strange Currencies 7. Tongue 8. Bang And Blame 9. I Took Your Name 10. Let Me In 11. Circus Envy 12. You

 

They couldn’t stay off the road forever, so Bill Berry, in his infinite wisdom, cajoled the rest of the band into making a record that “rocked” (or a “rockord”) that they could tour behind for the first time in 5 years. So Buck went and got himself a Les Paul to play instead of that damned jangly Rickenbacker in order to shore up the guitar hero credentials necessary for such an undertaking, and complied. The tour? A huge success, their biggest ever. The album? An almost Spinal Tap-level tragedy in which a band of aging, out-of-touch fogies attempts to remain hip in a post-Nirvana world by “rocking” without realizing that they’ve completely forgotten how to “rock” in any sort of convincing manner, which results in an album that sounds like nothing more than a parody of a “raw, hard rock album.”

If you’ve heard the album’s hit, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” (presumably the only song in rock history about Dan Rather – proof here), you’ve heard most of the other songs on here – Buck boorishly blaring three or four chords so tactlessly that under no circumstances should what he is playing ever be classified as a “riff,” as Stipe fails to come up with a melody with more than two notes in it. “Kenneth” is actually pretty catchy, seeing as it was, you know, a hit single and everything, but very little of the remaining, highly similar rockers are. And when I say “similar,” I mean it – there’s very little to distinguish between many of these batches of pathetically dumbed down chord sequences and pitiful glammy “arena hero” posturing, other than the fact that Buck uses a tremolo effect on a couple of songs, which more or less constitutes “wild experimentation” on the likes of this album.

But, believe it or not, sameyness is not the biggest reason why the record is poor. Perhaps it would be if it hadn’t become undeniable that REM’s songwriting had dipped drastically down the scale from “expert pop craftsmen” to “brain damage patients” quality. But as is, just about the only thing saving Monster from near total unlistenability is Buck’s guitar tone, a creamy, processed-to-frig tube crunch that’s as cheap as it is irresistible. It’s the only reason I can get my trashy kicks out of lumbering, three-chord sludgefests like “Crush With Eyeliner” or “I Took Your Name,” even if they sound like a stupid 12 year-old’s wet dream of what decadent 70’s arena rock is supposed to sound like (just with Buck’s monolithic chordal blasts in place of any flashy guitar heroics. Unless you consider the backwards guitar solo on “Kenneth” some sort of guitarical achievement, in which case, go listen to Revolver you naïve twat). I mean, had these guys become such egomaniacal, pampered rock stars in just a few short years that they actually thought this was hard-hitting, hard-edged rock? They sound like complete dinosaurs trying to play a fast punk rock song on “Star 69” (and by dinosaurs I mean actual brontosauruses clumsily trying to play guitars in the studio), and a few of the compositions that aren’t three-chord rock are absolutely hideous – “King Of Comedy” is disgusting metallic funk that I think is supposed to aurally represent the bottom of my shoe when I step in dogshit, and I would probably be able to render some sort of opinion of the compositional quality of the alleged elegiac Kurt Cobain tribute “Let Me In” if it didn’t sound like it was recorded from inside a trash can five miles away from the studio.

Still, as far as weak REM albums to this point in history go, I’d almost rather hear most of this than listen to Green all the way through. That one just seemed so lifeless, while a few songs at a time from this thing can be fun because it’s so sonically over the top and exaggerated that you can revel in those heavily processed guitars and pretend it’s all a big joke for a little while. But listening to the whole thing just makes me feel dirty. Perhaps in no small part because Stipe has resorted to writing songs full of slutty sexual allusions that he probably thought were being teasing and alluring a la Mick Jagger but actually just sound… gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote a phrase. But a line like “Do you give good head?/Am I good in bed?/I don’t know, I guess so” isn’t quite as clever and provocative as he wished it was, especially coming from a guy who thinks saying “she’s a sad tomato” about a girl is a good way of indicating her alluring sexuality. I think it’s great that Stipe was/is a queer mainstream rock star, even if he didn’t officially “come out” until well after his relevance had shrunk drastically (in an interview circa the release of Reveal; before that he only evasively referred to himself as “an equal opportunity lech”) – Bowie might’ve been there first, but he did it before the rise of homophobic religious conservatism to political power in America. But that doesn’t mean he’s able to effectively communicate the nuances of his sexuality in lyrical form. Plus half these songs seem to be sung from the point of view of creepy (and horny) stalkers. Blech.

There are a couple of legitimate highlights on this record. I’m a sucker for “Strange Currencies,” despite the fact that it’s basically “Everybody Hurts” with loud guitars and is so cheesy that it appears to have no greater aspiration than to be played during a climactic prom-centric scene in a 2nd rate high school movie, but I’m far more convinced by Stipe’s soul papa pledges of love than I ever was by his dreary suicide hotline boilerplate. The piano-based “Tongue” might’ve been an equally effective change of pace if Stipe’s falsetto wasn’t so ruinous. But the best song here by some distance? The lost gem “Circus Envy.” Ultra-distorted, swarm-of-mutant-bees fuzz bass and pummeling, non-cheesy Buck rhythm guitar combine to create something that resembles the ’65 Kinks on steroids. It’s the only song here that sounds like an actual angry rock song rather than a caricature of one. And thus, though Monster went to number 1 and was a huge seller out of pure post-Automatic anticipation, REM as caricature-of-a-rock-band was starting to seem like it was coming true.



One Comment

  1. Justin wrote:

    I am torn between my personal, sentimental affinity for this record and my cold, objective assessment of it. On the one hand, this was, and is, a fine record that stood out in 1994 due to its brash, underdeveloped loudness. It was a perfect soundtrack for a teenager then, such as I was. It’s fetishizing of the past – in this case 70’s garage and glam rock music — was a suitable contribution to early-mid-nineties popular culture.

    It was a weird record then because we hadn’t heard anything like that from them before, and it remains an oddity today, despite the follow-up record New Adventures in Hi-Fi picking up where Monster left off. It is a strange record for its volume and imperfections just as Automatic for the People stood out for it’s calm and perfections of sound and thematics.

    Yet, I have to admit that Monster doesn’t hold up over time as an album quite the way earlier records like Murmur or Automatic do. Certain songs from Monster are strong, however, when heard out-of-context, such as: “Crush With Eyeliner,” “Tongue,” and “Bang and Blame.” But you’re right, Monster is an average album by a band that had peaked.


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