Saturday, July 1, 2023

REM #9: Monster

Release Date: September 27, 1994

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Michael Mills (bass, keyboards); Bill Berry (percussion)

Produced by Scott Litt & REM

Side One: What's the Frequency Kenneth; Crush With Eyeliner; King of Comedy; I Don't Sleep, I Dream; Star 69; Strange Currencies

Side Two: Tongue; Bang and Blame; I Took Your Name; Le Me In; Circus Envy; You

Monster marked a shift in tone and sound for REM. Released in 1994 and recorded over the course of several months while touring, the album takes a sardonic look as pop culture amid mid-90's euphoria, but with dark forebodings ahead. America is presented as a grotesque carnival of parasites and obsessives.

"What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" opens the distorted guitars that appear throughout the record. Inspired by a "post-modern" incident in 1986 when CBS news anchor Dan Rather was accosted in Manhattan by two men who claimed to be time travelers, repeating over and over "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" One of the men was convicted of shooting and killing a stagehand for the Today Show, under the delusion the media was controlled by evil forces. REM used the incident to satirize cultural critics/academics trying to understand the younger generation. Cryptic lyrics like, "withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy" and Stipe's staccato delivery result in a hybrid of New Wave and Sci-Fi. 

On "Crush With Eyeliner" Stipe takes on the persona of a stalker infatuated with a model, uncertain if he's in love with her beauty or fame. Performed in a 70's glam rock song in the style of T-Rex and David Bowie, Stipe menacing on the refrain, "I'm the real thing." "King of Comedy" follows up in a similar vein, commenting on the exploitive nature of show business and the perpetual greed. "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" is both conniving with a nefarious narrator. "Star 69" sounds more like '80s REM, referring to a parasitic relationship, an essential part of any tabloid narrative. "Strange Currencies" could be a sequel to "Everybody Hurts", but more hopeful and cathartic. 

On "Tongue" Stipe sings in a falsetto accompanied by piano, soulful in its own unique way. "Bang and Blame" sounds like REM doing their own rendition of a Nirvana song, Stipe and Cobain were friends and were considering making a record together. "I Took Your Name" muses on the fragility of identity in a hypermedia plane, a song suited for the social media age, Peter Buck's riffs ripple like a ZZ Top tune. "Let Me Down" is both stripped down, slightly derivative. "Circus Envy" continues in a punkish style with swampy guitars. "You" ends the record on a properly discordant note, brimming with ambivalence. 

REM rose to fame by ignoring the trends and embracing their insularity (up to a point). Monster revealed them being influenced by the music going on around them, spurring some of their most iconic songs. Every band that hit mega stardom will inevitably make a record about the surreal nature of fame - and Monster is that record for REM. 

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