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After the mostly subdued, melancholy tones of its last two albums, R.E.M. figured to toughen things up this time. But who expected a rock ‘n’ roll assault as radical and frequently as stark as U2’s “Achtung Baby”?
Where the Irish band focused in that 1991 album on icy, futuristic textures in moving away from the spiritually tinged anthems of “The Joshua Tree,” R.E.M. works on a wider canvas, employing a synthesis of widely divergent, post-'60s rock influences.
Incorporating echoes of everything from the Beatles and the Stones through grunge and the indie-rock sound that R.E.M. helped define in the ‘80s, “Monster” is a spirited celebration of rock history and imagination--a work that showcases Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry as both fans and masters of the form.
Most of R.E.M.'s themes, however, are anything but joyous. Despite moments of wicked humor (what better title for an anxious, Velvet Underground tip-of-the-hat than “Crush With Eyeliner”?), the heart of the album deals with obsession.
In “King of Comedy,” the subject is greed, be it in rock ‘n’ roll or televangelism: “Make your money with exploitation . . . Say a prayer at every station.”
Mostly, the “Monster” of the title proves to be romantic obsession--and demons abound: bitterness, jealousy, betrayal. In “Strange Currencies,” Stipe howls: “I don’t know why you are mean to me / And I don’t know what you mean to me / But I want to turn you on . . . turn you up . . . figure you out . . . take you on.”
Not that the themes are always easily explored. Some of the vocals are buried in the mix, much like the teasingly elusive R.E.M. of old. Others--including a sweet soul falsetto in “Tongue"--are squarely up front.
The album’s wild card is “Let Me In,” which was written after the death of Kurt Cobain. Stipe and Cobain had grown close in the weeks before the Nirvana leader’s suicide in April. Far from the comfort and caress of R.E.M.'s “Everybody Hurts,” this track expresses helplessness, loss, confusion and guilt--uneasy feelings punctuated by an aggressive, church-organ swirl.
Given the differences in the styles of their bands, it’s interesting that Cobain and Stipe would find a common ground and want to work together.
The link is the honesty and fearlessness of their music. Those values assume a different shape for Stipe and company in “Monster,” but they remain gloriously intact.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).