Tuesday 20 April 2021

R.E.M.: Monster


(#514: 8 October 1994, 2 weeks)


Track listing: What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?/Crush With Eyeliner/King Of Comedy/I Don’t Sleep, I Dream/Star 69/Strange Currencies/Tongue/Bang And Blame/I Took Your Name/Let Me In/Circus Envy/You


As Jonathan Meades has recently and correctly observed, art is nothing without mongrelisation, and all artists worthy of being called artists have to get their hands dirty at some stage. Art is not consolatory wallpaper, a cosy cushion set there to agree with you.


Thus too many people were thrown by Monster, as its permanent occupancy of all charity shops indicates. Why wasn’t this nice, soothing soft-rock as per the band’s two previous albums (and if you think either was nice or soothing, you never really listened to them), despite their stated determination not to make another nice, soothing soft-rock album?


Not even the people involved in its making seemed to have grasped its content satisfactorily; for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition, Scott Litt set about “cleaning up” the original, muffly mix, putting Stipe’s vocals into the foreground, even though they were not meant to take centre stage; simply another ingredient in the overall musical picture, excising the staccato, sequencer-type guitar motif which punctuates “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” inserting alternate vocal tracks (e.g. to make “Strange Currencies” sound more like “Everybody Still Hurts”) and other tactics to make the record acceptable to solvent morons.


The record jarred many idle listeners much in the same way that audiences for the film Joker were disorientated by Joaquin Phoenix doing a little dance on some steps to “Rock & Roll Part 2” by He Who Can No Longer Be Named. There was predictable controversy, and yes, although this acts as a suitably disturbed soundtrack to a profoundly disturbed mind, one is left with the uncomfortable yet unavoidable feeling that assessing pop and rock music while taking immense care to stay clear of the Disgraced Glam-Rocker is an awkward, incomplete and ultimately misleading story – indeed, one could argue that the undue lionisation of Bowie is a direct consequence of being unable to write about glam fully.


This is not a detour, since Monster is dedicated to Joaquin Phoenix’s older brother (“FOR RIVER”) who asininely expired of a speedball overdose in October 1993; River’s then girlfriend Samantha Mathis appears in the video for “Strange Currencies,” and although Courtney Love liked to think “Crush With Eyeliner” was about her, the song was really a New York Dolls tribute which, for Stipe, helped clear the writer’s block which had come on since River’s passing.


And there is Kurt, Kurt, fucking Kurt, and “Let Me In” – a just howl in the wind, voice, furiously distorted guitar like Billy Bragg entangled in a tsunami, and underlying Farfisa organ – is about him, as probably is the concluding “You,” the twin to Jeff Buckley’s “Dream Brother” (“And I want you like the movies, kiss me now”), if it isn’t about River (as well).


What probably happened with R.E.M. is that they had crept back towards their Fables Of The Reconstruction period; back to obscured voices and words, semi-lit guitar backdrops, the renewed urge not to get, not quite, what is being said. Maybe Monster is mainly about Stipe and his problems identifying with the orange (that cover) new world of 1994. As with Ducks, Newburyport,  “Frequency” is about wanting to comprehend what is now going on but armed only with media soundbites and clippings to help make sense. “King Of Comedy” – Phoenix’s Joker eventually realises his mission to kill his spiritual father, i.e. Rupert Pupkin grown old and complacent - is as angry as anything on The Holy Bible (“I’m not commodity”).


Much of Monster is lush and louche in ways which some people of the period found disquieting, yet remains unmistakeably R.E.M.’s work – who else would think to incorporate the unearthly and pre-emptively autumnal chorus of “I’m the real thing” into “Crush”? It is also undeniably sensual in key places; the concealed pounding of “King Of Comedy” could pass for a Blur B-side; “Tongue” persuades Eno’s Another Green World framework into its true habitat; Mike Mills’ feature “I Took Your Name” is rather akin to Annie Lennox doing Mick Jagger. In “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream,” Stipe is adamant that a cup of coffee on its own – or perhaps at all - just won’t do.


But the invention is unceasing. “Star 69” is urgent, purposeful pop with a power born in modesty. “Strange Currencies” is the healing of everybody hurting – he WANTS it! “Bang And Blame” bears the bewitching right angles which attracted me to the band in the first place. “Circus Envy” fizzles with incomplete wires of electricity like the Mary Chain left too long in the chip pan. Strange currencies, dodgy connections, and a prayer to the already deceased – this is the thrilling future you left behind, or left forward.

There was another album which Monster helped keep off number one (along with a Cyndi Lauper greatest hits set and Luther Vandross; it actually peaked at number four), and Stipe apparently apologised in person to Massive Attack since he thought Protection the better record. It is almost impossible to evaluate exactly what Protection represents; it is one of the least coherent of big pop albums, but that adds immensely to its attraction.


Most people, me included, purchased the album for the title song, in which the rhythm track to “The Payback” is married to a gloomily authoritative and circulatory piano figure directly from fellow West Countrymen Tears For Fears, and over which Tracey Thorn delivers some of the most profound, touching and revelatory lyrical observations about feminism, child abuse and gender to have ever touched pop, and look how my crass The Price Is Right traduction of it has already cheapened things – you had to be there, in the meltingly hot 1994 summer, to experience it properly and unforgettably.


But the album is really Massive Attack Presents…; each featured artist gets two songs – Thorn, Tricky (both of his contributions turn up in delightfully and disconcertingly different form on Maxinquaye), Nicolette (Now Is Early is one of the greatest pop records of the last thirty years – she was doing this a decade ahead of Amy) and Craig Armstrong (film reels, but it is nice to see the orchestra emerging, like a tanker out of the fog, two-thirds of the way through “Heat Miser").


Most startling of all, though, are Horace Andy’s two features; “Spying Glass” radiates like a thousand-year-old scroll of shanty systematically decimated by great walls of Tackhead drum echoes, while the inclusion of “Light My Fire” caused much confusion among writers at the time; however, this represents the very roots of Wild Bunch club nights, shebeen parties, immense beats, exhortations to the crowd in keeping with those advertisements you’d hear on pirate radio. As with Monster, Protection strips off its outer layer of placidity (literally; the sleeve artwork is based on burned-out images for Blue Lines) to reveal a living, pulsating and perhaps impolite (to some) but absolutely indispensable essence. The Mad Professor’s remix edition, No Protection, ventured even further into that essence and is even more "essential" (look, I tried to avoid it, honest!).