R.E.M. DayR.E.M. – Monster

By | posted on 11th March 2014

In nature, generally speaking, smaller animals tend to have a higher metabolic rate, and live shorter, more hectic lives than bigger creatures. To put it another way, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Worth bearing in mind.

After two and a half albums of increasingly acoustic fare, it was time for another R.E.M. sea change. Enough of this acoustic whimsy, declared Peter Buck, I must dust off that old guitar of mine. Oh, and also get hold of an industrial quantity of reverb. I am ready to rock again! And rock he did - the opening riff of "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" is an electric bolt of fierce intent that sets the stage for the whole of Monster. The whole album is centered around Buck's guitar thrash, and no small amount of reverb. The downside to this, after the experimentation of previous albums, is that Monster goes through long periods of feeling one-paced, or one-toned: a lot of what had made R.E.M. great up to this point just gets caught up in the fuzz.

Listening for the first time in some time, and listening right after Out of Time and Automatic For The People, the other element of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" that leaps out is that Mike Mills' melodic bass is back after a leave of absence. Temporarily back, sadly: by the time you get to "King of Comedy" it seems to have gone missing again, replaced by a chugging fug.

"...Frequency" was one of four singles from Monster: strange, though, that "Star 69" (or 1471, as I like to call it - boom-tish!) wasn't one of them. Its raw and rough style did at least come to form the template for R.E.M.'s final two albums, Accelerate and Collapse into Now, when the band would don their rock togs one last time. The other thing to note about "Star 69" is that it is the shortest track on Monster. You can't beat nature: the real problem with the album is that as fierce and direct as the material is, they haven't yet got the hang of getting in and out with as little sag as possible - or perhaps they're like a magician trying manfully to remember how to perform an old trick, but unable to pull off the deft sleight of hand required. On Lifes Rich Pageant only one track ("Cuyahoga") lingers past the four minute mark, and even then only by nineteen seconds; seven of Monster's twelve tracks are longer than four minutes.

The other highlight, "Let Me In", is Michael Stipe's tribute to friend Kurt Cobain, whose death in April 1994 came while R.E.M. were recording Monster. Built on a ferocious wailing guitar, and a plaintive lyric that moves from anger to beautiful falsetto, it's a powerful example of Stipe's strength when dealing with loss in a lyric. It can't quite save the album or bring it to the heights of their earlier work, but its one of their mid-to-late career highs.

This review is part of R.E.M. Day - optimism in the face of reality, some might call it.