Classic Albums: 20 Years of R.E.M.’s “Monster” – 09/26/1994‏‏

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by Ryan Meehan

It seems a little bit out of sorts to call a record that represents the peak before a decline in a band’s popularity a “classic album”, but R.E.M.’s “Monster” is a disc that I seem to keep going back to after all these years. It was released on September 26th, 1994, which would make everyone who will actually finish reading this column “very fucking old”.

The two previous records released by the once college-rock foursome from Athens, Georgia were a bit of a departure from the sound that we heard on tracks like “Finest Worksong” and “Orange Crush”. Both “Out of Time” and “Automatic For the People” were great offerings, but I could see why the fans that had grown to love the band were starting to feel alienated by their new sound. By the time I heard “Star Me Kitten”, I myself was wondering if the band would ever really return to form and embrace the electric guitar sound that forced MTV to construct a whole show (Alternative Nation) around college rock and everything that sounded close to it.

However, 1994’s “Monster” really jumped out of the stereo from the get go. The album’s opening track and first single really solidified the belief that there was going to be a lot of guitar-driven rock on this record. It was indeed the real deal, and Warner kept pulling singles off of it like it was a gold mine. Although I realize this may not fit the “classic” definition of what it means to be a “classic” record, it’s important to me because I was fourteen years old when it came out and that was a very important part of my developmental stage as a musician. So let’s take a look at what made “Monster” the monster that it is, track by track…

1. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

Although the song itself is not written about the subject matter in the title, said title comes from this very bizarre 1986 story involving how Dan Rather was beaten by an assailant while walking to his Manhattan apartment along Park Avenue. Between punching Rather from behind and in his abdomen, the assailant (many years later identified as a man named William Tager) repeatedly yelled “Kenneth, What’s the Frequency?”. Even though this is common knowledge amongst music fans, what a lot of them don’t know is that incident would not be the last time Tager would make an attempt to attack someone involved with a news broadcast: He was sentenced to a 25-year prison sentence for killing NBC stagehand Campbell Montgomery back in 1994 on the set of the Today Show. The song itself is a very good indication of what you’re going to get for the remainder of the album, and lets you know right away there isn’t going to be any “Nightswimming” or “Monty Got a Raw Deal” happening before the album’s close. It’s also an accurate preview of all of the trem and fuzz effects you’ll hear along the way.

 2.  “Crush With Eyeliner”  

Proving R.E.M. never grows out of the age where they know their shit, the band got a little bit of help from Sonic Youth on this one as Thurston Moore provides backing vocals. Supposedly this song was influenced by the New York Dolls, and meant to sound “exceptionally sleazy and over the top” according to Stipe. This is a far cry from the story that I heard back in high school, which suggested this song is actually about Courtney Love. (Teenagers will believe just about any dumb shit you tell them) I love the line “She’s a sad tomato” because it’s my own personal belief that not enough alternative rock songs address the feelings of vegetables. And there’s a certain purity in the sarcasm by which Stipe sings “I’m the real thing” the second time through during the chorus, almost like he’s rolling his eyes while making a gesture that resembles jerking off. Perfect sequencing move putting this track second.

3.  “King of Comedy”

This is where the album briefly changes pace, as “King of Comedy” is by far the danciest number on the collection. It could honestly be a Depeche Mode song, and I truly mean that. The vocals are mixed much lower than you’d expect, as Stipe sings about the different ways you can “make your money” while encouraging you to “say a prayer at every station”. Although there is a very strong sense that the latter is a reference to religion given the rest of the lyrics in that verse, I have to wonder if that’s the case given the band’s topical obession with terrestrial radio evidenced in previous singles such as “Pop Song ’89” and “Radio Song”. Whether that’s the case or not is to be determined, but I love that little shooting guitar pull-off at the end of every chorus and the abrupt ending would not end up being the last one on the record. I think sometimes a lot of people hear endings that happen without instance and simply think “Wow, that’s surprising they couldn’t have come up with a better ending” not realizing how hard it is to do so. You can’t fade out like you could do back in the seventies, it just sounds weak. I’d rather listen to band stop on a dime than drag it out. Added fact: The working title of this song was “Yes, I am fucking with you.” It would be interesting to learn whether that changed due to the fact that the band may have not wanted to submit a title to the label that contained an obscenity, even though they were so big at the time they could have probably gotten away with it. It would also be interesting to learn if as a society we are going to ever get over the classification of that word as profane

4.  “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream”

Very rarely do you get good results when you begin a song with four bars of virtually nothing but drums, but R.E.M.’s minimal use of feedback on this record introduces the verses nicely on this one. The lyrics of this one are overtly sexual in nature, as after a lot of suggestive questioning during the second verse Stipe ends every chorus by saying “I’ll settle for a cup of coffee, but you know what I really need”. The lead guitars on this track are much more calming and bright than some of the harsher, riff-driven cuts that make up the faster songs on the album. This contrast might be one of the reasons they decided to put it right before the next one…

5.  “Star 69”

Probably the most alive sounding track on the record, “Star 69” is also the shortest. Wasting no time with meandering transitions, the band is able to get off plenty of content in a short period of time. At times the speed of the vocals looks like it’s about ready to challenge the rapidity of Stipe’s classic stream of consciousness rant on “It’s the End of the World as we Know It”. It’s also full of smart ass “I caught you in the act” lines like “You don’t have to take the bar exam to see…What you’ve done is ignoramus 103”. As many of us remember, “Star 69” was the old landline short code that allowed you to connect with the last person who has just contacted you. That is of course, unless the person who made the initial call dialed *67 before the number blocking the Star 69 function. Perhaps this type of back and forth banter was the inspiration for the fact that the lead vocals are cluttered with tons of background vocal patterns to match before the chorus ties everything together.

6.  “Strange Currencies”

This track is interesting because it almost didn’t make the record, yet became a very successful rock single. The band was originally going to shelve it due to the fact that the arpeggiated guitar rhythm sounded too much like “Everybody Hurts”, but decided to keep it anyway because it was such a great cut. It ended up being the third single taken from the album, and a huge success. This is probably my favorite song on the album. When I was younger writing songs based aroung C major seemed kind of tacky and predictable, but the older I get I can definitely see why so many people do it. It’s called “Middle C’ for a reason, and that reason is because our ear loves to hear it in pop music. A timely guest spot was done by the late River Phoenix’s sister Rain, who sang backing vocals. Although the repeated line “You will be mine” seems quite predatory in nature, it does fit perfectly with the desperation of the rest of the lyrics. It’s possible for the listener to feel the subject both pursued and pleaded with at the same time, and this is a common theme in a lot of love songs. But while the typical love song drama is there, you don’t necessarily feel as if it’s that way because of the brash guitar tone that R.E.M. was known so well for. You know, way back when the term “college rock” actually meant something.

7.  “Tongue”

This is precisely why sequencing is important, kids. The softest segment on the CD, “Tongue” does not feature a lot of percussion and really splits the disc down the middle. It’s almost an old soul song at heart, with a lot of organ and falsetto vocals. They shot a video for this one too, which has kind of a roller rink/disco club vibe to it. Dreamy and possessing less bite, this allowed the band to once again remind us of their range even though it probably belongs on a different album. It would be short lived, as the final tinkering note on the piano dies out and the record gets back on track with lots of echo to boot.

8.  “Bang and Blame”

I can also tell the band valued this song, because on the Maxi-single they added a very cool live version of the best song from “Out of Time” called “Country Feedback”. This is one of the most noticeable guitar hooks on the program, and would end up being R.E.M.’s last number one modern rock single. (Boy, isn’t is funny how the definition of that has changed over the years…?) The bass in this song rules, and although the debate over the source of the lyrics has never really been addressed it’s really the instrumentation that makes it so memorable. The album version of this song ends with a fade up of this really cool instrumental that’s barely about a half of a minute long, but killer and very haunting. It did not appear on the radio version of the single for obvious reasons, and that’s too bad because it makes for a great outro.

9.  “I Took Your Name”

This is the one with that pulsating tremolo saw effect on the guitar that is pretty much dependent on drummer Bill Berry staying in tempo. Some online forums suggest this song is about identity theft, but although that may be the case I think it’s more so in the sense of losing one’s sense of purpose then lifting a social security number off of a mortgage application. There’s this part at the end of the chorus where Stipe sings “If there is some confusion…Who’s to blame…?” and then instead of finding the root cause of the fault, that section ends with this badass guitar to end the phrase. It’s almost as if it speaks for itself, and although it leaves a question unaswered from a lyrical standpoint it doesn’t make the listener feel pissed for not being given a resolution. From a production standpoint the vocals remain very distant, and are mixed at about the same level as “King of Comedy”. It’s got a killer falsetto to match as well, but only in the chorus as in the verses it would probably be overkill.

10.  “Let Me In”

The only percussive element to “Let Me In” is the tambourine, because the focus is mainly on the soaking guitar sound the drenches the rest of the mix. It sounds like the feeling you get when you’re stuck in a car during a downpour, and the elements have turned the scenery into an opaque grey matter chunk of precipitation that rarely vibrates. There are two theories to the result of this recording: It shows that either they can write similar songs without a rhythmic background, or that they wrote this song and then deliberately left it somewhat unfinished. The pause at the middle of this song kills any hope that a full drum track will pop up. But the guitar jumps right back in, almost sounding as if it beat the tambo to the punch. It’s a selection that’s very unique compared to the others on the album, but not just due to the lack of a bombastic beat. The organ adds a great flavor, and isn’t up so far that it drowns out what’s supposed to drown out everything else.

11.  “Circus Envy”

I consider this to be one of the more fun tracks on the CD, even though the words begin with “Here comes that awful feeling again…”. The electric guitars are really dirty and scratchy, and they seem like they almost cut out completely at times. Sometimes on the way to the bank, the word “unintentional” drops the U and the N and we’re left with something that was meant to be in the first place. The six strings saw their way throughout the beat, but while all that is great I love the words to this song more than anything else. The best line in the song is the end of the chorus: “I’ve got my telescope head in the haystack…I am tired of your dodge ball circus act…Put pepper in my coffee, I forgot to bark…(on command)”. Upset that you didn’t think of the hooks in this drop D masterpiece before they did? Do I smell jealousy?

12.  “You”

An excellent ending to an excellent album, “You” employs the same echo/tapback used in Bang and Blame, but at a slower tempo. The discordant main riff sets it in motion, and the added falsettos at the end of the phrases tie in quite nicely with the oddly soothing vocals which bring the album to a close. Although a song that is hauntingly depressing, there are brief moments of hope amidst a landscape that doesn’t contain many minor chords. I think sometimes it’s more approach than the notes which make up a particular chord that can make a song feel either major or minor. Although this may have been put on the record last due to its lack of effectiveness if placed elsewhere on the disc, it’s still a fitting conclusion to the band’s return to the sound that put the gas in the van and got it back to Athens in the early years.

Bonus Comment

If you remember the last interview Kurt Cobain did with Rolling Stone, he had mentioned that he was a really big fan of what R.E.M. was doing at the time and hinted that this could have potentially been the direction Nirvana was headed in had he not taken his own life. This was further stamped for approval when the band appeared on “Unplugged” and platyed some of its heavier songs in acoustic form. Cobain himself died in early April, so he would not live to hear the material that would make up this September release in which R.E.M. decided to move in the opposite direction. One of the biggest mysteries in modern rock music history is: What would have happened if these band would have headed in each other’s previous musical directions and essentially switched places? Although R.E.M. wouldn’t have been nearly as heavy as Nirvana was, the songwriting chops would still be there. It’s something that we’ll never know for sure, but definitely worth pondering for decades to come.

Summary

In conclusion, the most significant point to be made about “Monster” is that most believe it was indeed the band’s last great album. Although songs like “Electrolite” and “E-Bow the Letter” were decent songs off the band’s next disc “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”, there were indications that the energy spent on the “Monster” tour was simply too much for a group of guys who were approaching their fifteenth year of playing music together. This was confirmed as founding member Bill Berry left shortly after suffering a brain aneurysm and declaring he no longer had the drive to continue on with the band.

Although the playability on “Hi-Fi” was there, the inventive songwriting and creative spark that made the band so fun to watch in the beginning was slowly starting to disappear. They put out several forgettable records in the years that followed, so “Monster” was kind of the last record that fans of the band want to remember.

Once again thanks for visiting First Order Historians and enjoying more of the internet’s finest in user generated content.

Meehan

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