- 27 Sep 19
25 years ago today, R.E.M. released their ninth studio album, Monster. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting our original review of the classic album.
Well, it's about time this crowd came up with a second album. I suppose the fact that they’ve finally decided to write a bunch of original songs accounts for the delay.
No, do not adjust your horizontal hold; your correspondent hasn’t entirely lost his grip on reality. The band to which I refer are The Hindu Love Gods, a vintage souped-up model which R.E.M. dragged out of the garage a few years back in the company of Warren Zevon, for a run through a brash and invigorating set of R&B standards and the odd inspirational contemporary cover, like Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret’.
Monster is more certainly a beast of a different colour, but in sonic terms at least, it harks back to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Hindu Love Gods, as R.E.M. once more crank up their amps to 11 to create a mandolin-free zone that nevertheless still manages to accommodate some entirely unexpected pleasures.
The opening three tracks, ‘What’s The Frequency Kenneth?’, ‘Crush With Eyeliner’ and ‘King Of Comedy’, leave you in no doubt that this is a monster of the Jurassic variety, all wild and snarling, spitting raw guitar chords and with feedback dripping off its claws. Which is not to say that this is bruisingly hardcore; R.E.M.’s facility for barbed hooks and melodies that snare, is still around to sweeten the pill and lighten the load.
The broodingly tense ‘I Don’t Sleep, I Dream’ finds Stipe evoking Morrison. That’s Jim, not Van, which means the mood is primal not spiritual, as the R.E.M. mainman teases out a lyric that posits sex as a metaphor for a meeting of minds or, perhaps, the other way ‘round. “I’ll settle for a cup of coffee but you know what I really need,” he half-sings through eyes that can only be heavy-lidded.
I think we do, Michael, and I also think the reviewer who described the next song, ‘Star 69’, as a topical piece about nuisance calls, may have missed the blatant innuendo. The soundtrack drives it home, for this is a textbook R.E.M. rave-up, a cascade of guitars and a waterfall of words building up to the kind of giddy sensory experience that begs to be described as orgasmic.
Balladic but still red-blooded, ‘Strange Currencies’ is the one that will have them swaying and striking matches when R.E.M. come to Slane, but after an extraordinary interlude to which we’ll later return, Godzilla lopes out of the garage again on ‘I Took Your Name’ with Stipe sounding a ringer for Iggy Pop and the band serving up their own pleasing interpretation of raw power.
Elsewhere, Monster is sometimes in danger of toppling under the weight of its heaviness, as in ‘Let Me In’, a Peter Buck showcase that offers more in the way of bluster than substance, and ‘Circus Envy’, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an early Blue Oyster Cult album, were the song possessed of the saving grace of irony. (And with Stipe, who can really tell?)
Happily, Monster recovers to end on an impressive note. On first hearing, ‘You’ may sound lugubrious, but repeated playing reveals something of the strange, jagged beauty of Tom Verlaine’s post-Television work. All of this would be enough to make Monster recommended if not essential listening; what actually pushes it towards a five-star rating is the presence of two outstanding songs at the top of side two.
‘Bang And Blue’, has charms to soothe the savage beast in its sultry, mid-paced swing and a radical change for the chorus that produces one of the album’s most memorable refrains, but it’s ‘Tongue’ which will throw you right off your feet as if casually cuffed by old Mr Rex himself.
The irony is that this is easily Monster’s most unrepresentative song, a gorgeous concoction of Hammond organ, piano and Stipe falsetto that effortlessly evokes Stax, Al Green and the sensation of cool, crystal water on a parched tongue.
Monster may be largely an album of heart, lungs and groin, not to mention fang, tooth and claw, but with ‘Tongue’, R.E.M. reveal their soul to crown a generally impressive return with one of the year’s most outstanding listening experiences.