On the loud, proud indeterminacy of R.E.M.’s ‘Monster’

Understanding how discretion and secrecy may share a space but aren’t synonymous, R.E.M. issued declarative statements from behind new screens on Monster. A new remix polishes the vocals to middling effect on their 1994 multi-platinum: Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck compete for Sexiest Man Alive when they and bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry had always offered themselves as multifoliate unit.

I don’t have much time for R.E.M. these days, but Monster is one of their records most informed by historicity. In its original mix Monster had the good fortune to act as an aural cousin to Suede’s Dog Man Star and The Auteurs’ Now I’m a Cowboy, two British albums filled with songs about men being kept and doing the keeping, about loving a person so much that the guitars mimic what it’s like not to see straight — in every sense. The yearning organ line atop the feedback swells in “Let Me In,” the wordless backup vocals in “Circus Envy,” and Stipe’s tiptoeing toward the chorus falsetto in “You”: a near wild heaven that previous albums had evoked with kudzu and flowers in bloom no matter how sharp the thorns (R.E.M.’s reveries demanded pain). The closing trio, notice, demonstrating how thorough was Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe’s achievement.

Opening the album with a single whose title boast/question announces its intention to screw with expectations, Monster offers a series of poses, refracted by filters that make Stipe sound like an aphid flexing its muscles in an anthill. In a way he wasn’t doing anything he hadn’t in 1983, only now he wrote and sang lyrics to match the wah-wah pedals. Should we pay attention to the swing of  Mills’ bass lines? Are we supposed to pay attention to Buck or Stipe? Or Buck and Stipe, like the vocal/instrumental crosstalk in the Velvet Underground’s “The Murder Mystery”? Is Stipe straight or queer or bi? Do you give good head? Are you good in bed? Do you sleep or dream? Is this R.E.M.’s new future or another way of reviewing the past? “It’s all too much…passion!” he bleats on “Crush with Eyeliner,” so overcome that he can’t stand talking about the passion.  The album’s second least convincing song is the moist valentine “Strange Currencies,” which isn’t one bit strange.  The least convincing moment happens in “King of Comedy” — R.E.M.’s “The Jean Genie,” in which Stipe sits like a man and loves like a reptile — when Stipe, mask slipping, yells, “I’m not commodity!” Right. Ah, the nineties.

On Monster R.E.M. showed me shrewder ways of projecting desire. In a glam-free era when ebullient sexual indeterminacy registered as vividly in pop culture as the Charleston, the quartet listened to the barbaric yawp of the grunge thread and shrugged. Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter attested to the Nirvana frontman’s confusion about stardom; these fifteen-year vets showed how self-consciousness could work as strategy and mode — offensively, if you please. An English mode. By turns sinister and silly, Monster is also what Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion should have been, down to its title; the guitars are as flash as synths. It’s great, catchy junk. It’s a lot like life.

How I’d rank the songs on Monster:

1. Circus Envy
2. Let Me In
3. King of Comedy
4. Star 69
5. Crush with Eyeliner
6. You
7. Tongue
8. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
9. I Don’t Sleep, I Dream
10. Bang and Blame
11. I Took Your Name
12. Strange Currencies

4 thoughts on “On the loud, proud indeterminacy of R.E.M.’s ‘Monster’

  1. Jukebox

    I was in Miami, October 94 when I heard your number 8 on the radio for the first time and I thought: “Wow, that’s a way to screw with expectations” Supremely melodic and raw and instantly memorable, it is one of my fav. REM singles. No matter your position. I don’t like the affectations in Tongue, which you place higher. Stipe never should allow to falsetto. The video is dope, though.
    I do like the hyper-speedy Star 69. Probably my fav. song off that album. I think Stipe did that thing again with “Glitter in Their Eyes” for Patti Smith’s Gung-ho.

    I like the album. I think is unfairly underrated. I would re-arrenge the songs differently.
    I’m ok with your last slot. It’s basically a re-written ballad made famous from previous album.

  2. Jukebox

    You can say they wanted a “grunge” album in homage to Cobain, but they came up more “glitter” and glam because they couldn’t hide their queer sensibilities. I say it’s their glam album. More River Phoenix adoration than Kurt (both are cited in the booklet)


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