Thursday, January 19, 2012

REM - Monster

REM is a strange beast, and in the wake of their breakup, one that deserves some examination. They unquestionably have had a lasting effect on the world of rock and roll, and their disciples are many. They also possess a singular character amongst their peers. Their image is neither rough or fashionable, but more fleetingly nerdy and awkward.  Their hits are often angsty balladry or quirky pop melodies, and they often fill the roll of "cool" band for people who don't like "cool". However, here at HAD, our favorite REM moment has always been one that broke rank with their catalog: the 1994 record Monster.

Often, Monster is cited as REM's response to the grunge movement, and that may have some validity.  The return of the "rock" in rock and roll was unquestionably apparent to the band, and they took a step back from the mellowness that they had spent most of the early 90's fostering. But the fact of the matter is that REM was a rock band long before they were producing pop like "Shiny Happy People" or miserable dreck like "Everybody Hurts". Monster's crunch and vitality was in many ways simply a return to the form that had made REM famous during their tenure at IRS records.

That return to form is one piece of the puzzle that makes Monster so great: the songwriting is exceptional, and the arrangements moreso.  It is garage rock at its best and most crafty, built on a simple foundation of drums, piano, bass, and guitar.  Sure, there's a note more crunch in the guitar, and there are moments where electronica threatens to rear its ugly head, but the dam never breaks, and instead we are left with a selection of songs that are utterly fantastic. But fantastic songs are only one piece of the puzzle.

Let it be noted that we don't particularly love Michael Stipe.  He can be whiny, and thrives on the idea of his own oppression.  He is the ultimate "emotional" rock star, to a fault.  It comes across in his writing, his delivery, and his persona.  And yet, on Monster, he absolutely nails it.  His lyrical content manages to escape literalism for most of the record, and instead return to the poignant abstraction that made "Stand" and "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" such amazing songs. Moreover, his vocals are in bulletproof form, yielding killer falsettos ("I Don't Sleep I Dream", "Tongue"), bizarre monotones ("Crush With Eyeliner", "King Of Comedy"),  straight ahead rock ("Star 69", "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?"), and soulful melancholia ("Strange Currencies").

To try and espouse a band like REM is a fools errand: the band is already installed as one of the seminal foundations of modern rock.  Yet it's worth considering that the things they are appreciated for may not be the band's greatest strengths. Monster is what many would call "out of character" for the REM of today, and a shadow of the greatness of their indie years. The fact of the matter is that it embraces both sides of the band's tumultuous public persona, and the result is the best record they ever recorded.

mp3: REM - Tongue