REM - Monster
AND MONSTERS go "Grrrrrrrrrrrr!"
Well, what else were they going to do? As the final chords of 'Find The River' ebbed away and the listener struggled to grasp the enormity of what had just been heard, one instinctively felt that when REM made another album - if REM made another album - it could not be 'Automatic 2: More Songs About Death And Dying'. So perfectly realised, so beautiful in its dignified exploration of the darkest themes, 'Automatic For The People' brought the late chapter in the REM story to a most unequivocal close. How could its perpetrator make another relatively quiet, contemplative record without starting to repeat themselves? What would be the point?
Leaving aside the response that seeing as the perpetrators were REM, the most consistently inspired band of their generation, the results would most likely be wonderful - and that would be the point - the volte face of 'Monster' comes as no surprise. They have, after all, been promising to do this for six years. On the eve of the release of 'Green', Michael Stipe enthused about the "real raw" album they were just itching to get into the studio and bash out. Plans that were, of course, stymied by the demands of enormodome-compatible stardom. And when it came, the subsequent retreat into mandolin-land was not only understandable, it felt like the natural course of events, especially when producing the band's most affecting work. It felt like the right thing to do. Which is not to say that for REM to make a rock album now is the wrong thing to do. The problem with 'Monster' - for problems there are - is that it is, in substantial part, an incredibly coy, stylised rock album. Much of it is indeed, as the band said in these pages, "Foxy, in-your-face, punk rock, trashed and stupid...", qualities REM have displayed in the past, certainly, but never in such concentration. Above all, it's so much of a reaction to its predecessor that it can't help but come across as something of an academy exercise for those concerned; in this case, and exercise in having fun. And the trouble with bands having fun is, unless you share their sense of humour...
'What's The Frequency, Kenneth?' is the first track, first single, and a herring of pinkish hue. Nothing else on 'Monster' is so throwaway - apart from the several deliberately throwaway moments - but it does get deeper beneath the skin with every listen and serves to alert one to the wobbling tremolo treatment that Peter Buck uses extensively in what follows.
It's also recognisably REM, in that it could conceivably have appeared on that mooted post-'Green' thrash. This cannot be said of a clutch of attempted weird-outs which broadly comprise the vaunted trash quotient of 'Monster': 'Crush With Eyeliner', 'King Of Comedy' and 'I Took Your Name'. The latter gives it to us straight: "I don't wanna be Iggy Pop," drones an androidal Stipe, "but if that's what it takes..."
Iggy is the template for this glam-ham REM, the Iggy of 1977's 'The Idiot', where his Stoogeian rhetoric was warped into a new, otherwordly persona by David Bowie's burgeoning electro-punk production skills. The metallic drums, the phased guitar overload, the mechanic vocals: they're all here, reproduced with the knowing aptitude of these model students who were covering that album's 'Fun Time' way back in 1987.
Imagine The Doors' 'Hello, I Love You' on the bladerunner soundtrack and you've got 'Crush With Eyeliner', a replicant duet between Stipe and Thurston Moor: "How can I convince her/That I'm invented too?" leers Mike. "Yeah, life is strange," weasels the sympathetic Thurst. Bloodlessly cool. 'King Of Comedy', by contrast, is dumber than Devo dumb, a club-footed robot stomp that bizarrely sounds like a parody of U2's 'Numb', itself a parody. Indeed, in its brilliant lyrical assault on the debilitating effects of a multi-media existence, 'King Of Comedy' might even be cocking a snook at U2 themselves: "Make your money with a pretty face/Make it easy with product placement/Make it charged with controversy," goes the gloopy Stipe vocal, before twisting the glare onto himself:: "How straight or queer am I?" By the end, this particular voice has returned to normal and jumped off the fence: "I'm not commodity".
Later there's 'Tongue', a vaguely sinister, slightly daffy detour with Stipe copping his best Smokey Robinson hi-pitched croon to only shoulder-shrugging effect.
All of which is so arch that Bill Berry's considerable eyebrows must have shot off the back of his head before the album was even mixed. It's fun, frequently, but we feel distanced, engaged only on a secondhand level. Moreover, the loudly trumpeted fox factor has been conspicuous by its absence. Sexy, as the Tap could have told 'em, is a troublesome beast to tame.
Fortunately, the pre-match bluster, as ever with REM, tells only part of the story. This 'Monster' has a human aspect that, once visible from beneath the caked face-paint, conveys the semblance of life upon its pack of showroom dummies. Four tracks in, 'I Don't Sleep, I Dream' calls a halt to the cabaret. Over a plaintive, straight-faced Buck motif, Stipe starts singing like Stipe about.... well, shagging, basically: "Are you coming to ease my headache/Do you give good head? Am I good in bed?" Wow. He gives it to us straight, too. "Aw, I don't know, I guess so". Then, in his finest chaste faslsetto, he offers the horniest come-on popular song has known since The Beatles suggested doing it in the road: "I'll settle for a cup of coffee/But you know what I really need".
Oh, for more of this. Fair play, we do get close. 'Star 69' breezes through a mystery tale of celebrity obsession (possibly) like a rough cast cousin of 'Pop Song 89', and is absolutely fine. 'With Love Come Strange Currencies', has similarly close-to-home parentage, an ironic coupling between 'Everybody Hurts' (melody) and 'Turn You Inside-Out' for the downright nasty, grasping obsession of the lyrics. 'Bang And Blame', like 'I Don't Sleep', hinges on an archetypically pretty melody and Stipe's ambiguous voice, caught betwixt disdain and sympathy for the song's distressed subject: "You got a little worried/I know it all too well/I Got your number/So does every kiss and tell/Who dares to cross your threshold".
But if the album has a salient point - and 'Monster' is such a muddled creature that the impact is at very least dissipated - then it has to be 'Let Me In'. This would be obvious even if we were unaware that it was written "to, for, and about" Kurt Cobain. Buck's guitars swell like an oncoming orchestral wave, like a distorted, fed up hymn, over which Stipe does his best to be heard. Consequently, the specifics are hard to make out, but the effect is all the greater for it. There's something about a guy gathering up his loved ones, saying goodbye. "Nice try," says the author. For all his attempts to distance himself from the "voices" singing his songs, there's no prevarication on Michael Stipe's part here.
In its wake, 'Circus Envy' can't help but sound like REM playing Nirvana, with a familiar triangular riff device and distressed guitar noise everywhere. "This monster in me makes me retch," rings the keynote phrase. Finally, 'You' swipes another melodic theme from the band's past ('King Of Birds' from 'Document') and returns to the domain of the feverishly infatuated. By the end, Stipe is screaming, "My attentions all turn to you! YOU! YOU!", but not before we have apparently heard him whisper "I want you like a Pisces rising..." Kurt was Pisces. Oh, don't even start...
So it invites you to get over-dressed, trowel on the mascara and get stoopid on the dancefloor, then stops the party two-thirds through. It's this confusion that as much as anything else distinguishes 'Monster' from recent REM opuses. That, and the pronounced streak of disingenuity, make it a hard album to love unreservedly.
Its saving grace lies, as you would expect, in the fact that it is the work of REM, the band whose restless intellect has fired some of the greatest rock music of this or any other decade. At best stunning, at worst merely diverting, 'Monster' sounds like the album they 'had' to make, to clear out their system, a simple prop to occupy our time...
Is this enough to be going along with? Grrrrrrrrrr.