My first introduction to R.E.M. was their 1994 album Monster. I had probably heard “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” enough times on the radio to finally decide – a few years later – to spend that twenty bucks at Tower Records for my own copy of the album. It was a limited edition gold CD (which was all the rage back then) commemorating the band’s tour of the region that generously included a Singapore leg. I can’t quite remember my first impressions of that album, but I followed up whatever interest garnered the years after by slowly trawling through their back catalogue.
Perhaps that was when I became more and more convinced that Monster really wasn’t the place to start listening to R.E.M. It just seemed so jarring and sinisterly out of place with everything else they had produced. I found myself falling in love instead with its immediate predecessor Automatic for the People (1992). It was (and still is) a gorgeous album, from the evocative ebb and flow of opening song “Drive” to the beautiful couplet that closed it, “Nightswimming” and “Find a River”. It seemed so much more sensitive and I suppose, earnest, even with all its lush embellishments.
It was only this year that I finally got round to listening to their first two albums Murmur (1983) and Reckoning (1984). Unlike some of their later material (like “Shiny Happy People”) which sound like a product of their time, these early efforts don’t seem dated at all even after a generation past. “Radio Free Europe”, the band’s first single, is still arguably its best: punchy and melodic, anticipating their career-long development of intricately crafted jangle-pop strung together by Stipe’s trademark enigmatic lyricism.
All they had built up through the years seem abandoned when we come to Monster, which plays like an anti-R.E.M. record. The upbeat pop that heralded the Warner years (“Me in Honey”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and, well, of course “Pop Song 89”) gave way to murky shades of cynicism (“King of Comedy”) and sleaze (“Crush with Eyeliner”). The delicate balladry of “Strange Currencies” and “Tongue” in the middle of the album prove to be but a brief respite before the ensuing feedback-laden onslaught that culminates in the darkly obsessive “You”.
Much has been made of this aberration in R.E.M.’s oeuvre, particularly Stipe’s adoption of various pathological characters in his songs. Most memorable is “I Took Your Name”, a song that lives out in first person a fanatical character thief’s chilling psyche. Beneath these layers of impersonation, however, lies a concern with authenticity: the tension between real and fake in “Crush with Eyeliner”, the yearning to “make it real” in “Strange Currencies”, and that crushing revelation in “Circus Envy”: “If I were you I’d really run from me“.
The only time Stipe lets down his guard to deal with his own personal realities is “Let Me In”, the song written to Kurt Cobain after his death, reliving his futile efforts to reach into the Nirvana frontman’s life. In the midst of the other monsters in the album, this track makes for the most painful listening as it’s Stipe’s voice you actually hear, not his development of someone else’s character. For me, realising this makes relistening to Monster after all these years not so much a exercise in nostalgia as I had originally expected, but one of the most harrowing experiences in watching fiction blend cruelly into the coldest of realities. To say goodbye? Nice try. – Dan.
mp3: R.E.M. – Let Me In