Saturday, August 18, 2012

R.E.M. Hits Perfection With Nailing The Rock And Roll On Monster!

The Good: Good vocals, Great lyrics, Interesting tunes
The Bad: Moments where lyrics are still indecipherable.
The Basics: Monster proves R.E.M. can rock while still maintaining their artistic integrity of intriguing (if indecipherable) lyrics and vocals.

Every now and then when I look at my older reviews, I ask myself "What were you thinking?" I look at how I rate some things and I wonder, "Honestly, what did you expect?!" Because I very seldom go back and re-rate my reviews, I am left with a legacy where occasionally, I get something a little wrong. Possibly my best example of this in the Music category is with the R.E.M. album Automatic For The People. This might well be a perfect album; it is certainly one I have kept in my permanent collection and I still listen to today. Odds are, someday soon I will pick up the two-disc version of it (assuming it exists and is not just a figment of my imagination), listen to that and when I review it I might correct that oversight of my more youthful self. The reason this comes up now is that the follow-up album to Automatic For The People, Monster, is an album that blew me away from the start. Monster is the hard rock R.E.M. that follows up on the quiet, sad ballads of Automatic For The People.

Quite simply, Monster rocks. Where Automatic For The People was quiet and driven by acoustic guitars and pianos, Monster is electric guitar and percussion, all the way. It is a rock and roll experience that is intense, loud and defiant, everything rock and roll is meant to be. Even over a decade later, Monster is still so fresh that it does not sound like anything else on the radio and the tracks have a sound that has never been effectively imitated or improved upon. Yes, in combination with Automatic For The People, this is R.E.M. at its peak.

With twelve tracks clocking in at 45:18, Monster is very much the product of R.E.M. The band is credited in the liner notes as Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe AND Bertis Downs and Jefferson Holt. All of the songs were written by the primary quartet and R.E.M. is credited as co-producers of the album. They play their own instruments, write their own songs, and provide the primary vocals on them, making it distinctly R.E.M.'s musical vision. And what a vision it is!

Underrated in the marketplace, Monster is a bold rock and roll experiment that delivers on the important three fronts: lyrics, instrumentals and vocals. R.E.M. is fairly well-known for writing songs with compelling or intriguing lyrics and opening with the murky and intense "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" is a great choice. Honestly, I have been rocking out to that track for years and my trepidation in picking up Monster was that the rest of the album could not hold up to the lyrical and musical intensity of that first track. Fortunately, I was wrong.

"What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" opens the album, but it is immediately followed up on by the rock and roll anthem "Crush With Eyeliner," the poetic and sexual "I Don't Sleep, I Dream," the jumbled "Band And Blame," until finally reaching the resolution of "You." Consistent across Monster is the quality of the lyrics. R.E.M. truly does have an intense ability to write great poetry and this album is no exception to that trend.

"What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" might be murky on the vocal front, but the lines are great. In this song - based on the mugging of anchor Dan Rather - Stipe belts out "Butterfly decal, rearview mirror, dogging the scene / You smile like the cartoon, tooth for a tooth / You said that irony was the shackles of youth / You wore a shirt of violent green, uh-huh / I never understood the frequency, uh-huh / You wore our expectations like an armored suit, uh-huh / I couldn't understand " ("What's The Frequency, Kenneth?") . It is a rally against naivete and stagnation and it makes for quite possibly a perfect rock and roll song. It's also so weird that it doesn't take much in the way of intelligence or security to say that the poetry is so sense that it's hard to understand what it is actually saying. Sometimes, the words just sound wonderful next to one another!

But R.E.M. is not just concerned with the political on Monster, as it is unabashedly on tracks like "King Of Comedy." They blend well the personal with songs like "I Don't Sleep, I Dream." It is rare to be able to make an effective rock and roll song about insecurity, but R.E.M. pulls it off with lines like, "Are you looking to drive my dreams? / You here to run my screens? / You come, deliver my demons / Hooray hooray hip hip hooray / Are you coming to ease my headache? / Do you give good head? / Am I good in bed?" ("I Don't Sleep, I Dream"). There is a murky, disturbed quality to the lines that lends itself well to a song about dreams.

It seems like - after they started doing love songs - each R.E.M. album has a song like "Nightswimming" that is melancholy and lovely, exploring relationships. On Monster, they take a break from the electric long enough to present "Strange Currencies." This track is unabashedly poetic and is clearly presented. Stipe engrosses the listener in the awkward love of melancholy when he sings, "The fool might be my middle name / But I'd be foolish not to say / I'm going to make whatever it takes, / Ring you up, call you down, sign your name, secret love, / Make it rhyme, take you in, and make you mine." ("Strange Currencies"). "Strange Currencies" might be the most romantic song R.E.M. has ever done . . . or one of the most creepy. Indeed, the lines repeated most often are "These words 'You will be mine'" ("Strange Currencies") are hardly romantic. It has more of a stalker quality, much like the classic track by The Police, "Every Breath You Take."

The thing about Monster is that after listening to a number of R.E.M. albums on a drive down to and back from Florida, this album stands out for the vocal diversity on the album. Lead singer Michael Stipe has a very safe mid-range vocal ability which he uses on tracks like "Strange Currencies," "Star 69," and "Bang And Blame," and virtually every other R.E.M. song he sings. On Monster, though, he tests the limits of his range. For example, he plays with a falsetto throughout "Tongue," which enhances the murky and mysterious quality.

He also does a falsetto on the title line of "I Don't Sleep, I Dream," which enhances the mysterious quality to the song. While much of his presentation on that track is drawn out and illusory in tone, the falsetto breaks through with a disturbing reality, much like waking up in sunlight. It is a masterful vocal move.

Stipe also goes lower, like on the opening to "King Of Comedy" and "Star 69." In fact, the only thing that made me question for a moment considering Monster a perfect album is the way the vocals and instrumentals are used occasionally to obscure the lyrics. Despite over a hundred listens to "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" I've never caught all of the lines. "Bang And Blame," "Circus Envy," and especially "Star 69" are mumbled through so many of the lines are difficult - if not incomprehensible - to understand. Indeed, on "Star 69," the lines are so jumbled by the use of reverb that if it were not intended, it would clearly diminish the song. Thematically, the obscuring makes sense, so R.E.M. gets a pass on that one.

Monster is musically a remarkably creative album for R.E.M. as they abandon their garage band sound in favor of anthemic electric rock and roll. It's easy to imagine "Crush With Eyeliner" being played to a stadium of fans. It's that kind of big rock and roll sound, wherein percussion, electric guitars and bass rock over all but the most important lines sung. R.E.M. makes some very classic sounding riffs with their electric guitars, like on the opening to "I Took Your Name."

In other words, Monster is not what one might expect when picking up an R.E.M. album. It is louder, more straightforward rock and roll without any pretense of being assessable light pop. It is not as experimental as Automatic For The People, but it achieves an equally high level of quality by being something so dramatically different from that earlier album to earn its own sense of perfection. Instead of simply mimicking its prior greatness, R.E.M. expands outwards with more personal songs that sound - ironically enough - more produced and flavored by the conventions of rock and roll.

But it's enough to keep coming back to and one I am looking forward to tracking down a two-disc version to; after all, if the one disc-version is this great, I can only image that more is better. . .

The best track (VERY tough call!) is either "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" or "Strange Currencies," there are no weak tracks on the album.

For other R.E.M. albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Automatic For The People
In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988 – 2000 (Deluxe)


Check out all the musical works that this album beat out on the Music Review Index Page where the reviews are organized from Best to Worst.

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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